Recently, two local civil-liberties groups exposed the extremes to which Boston police officers have gone to monitor gatherings, protests, and other lawful political activity in the city. The report by the state chapters of the ACLU and National Lawyers Guild painted an especially creepy portrait of the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, one of dozens of so-called fusion centers set up after 9/11 to coordinate local, state, and federal investigations.
Some of the past practices of the Police Department were clearly excessive; officers spied and wrote reports on acts of constitutionally protected speech, such as the run-up to a 2007 antiwar gathering at a Jamaica Plain church. Bostonians had many legitimate public safety concerns back then, and still do. But an appearance by the late social activist Howard Zinn wasn’t one of them.
There’s a dividing line between permissible investigation and threats to civil liberties. And in at least some cases, the Boston Police crossed it. Officers know they aren’t allowed to get search warrants on a hunch. And they have no business investigating ideas and speech absent reasonable suspicion that an individual is involved in criminal conduct or activity.
Most of the egregious cases cited occurred before 2009, when the regional intelligence center revised its policies to better safeguard civil liberties. The majority of the work of the intelligence center focuses on tracking gang feuds in the city as a way to prevent violence and deploy resources, according to Boston Police commissioner Edward Davis. Absent a nexus with criminal and terror-related activities, Davis insists that his officers do not and will not monitor political venues nor concern themselves with protected speech. “We don’t have the time or inclination to do those things,’’ he said.
Davis should be held to his word, and the regional center should be accountable for operating in a manner consistent with democratic values and freedom of expression.