The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts alleged Tuesday that Boston police used intimidation tactics and unlawfully detained pedestrians, including some drug users and homeless people, in a high-profile raid last August near the Boston Medical Center.
The advocacy group released hours of raw video, including officer body camera footage, that it obtained in a lawsuit against the city. The footage raises questions about police tactics during the so-called Operation Clean Sweep, a crackdown that the department said was spurred by community concerns over public drug use and the assault of a corrections officer. In all, 34 people were arrested.
Ruth Bourquin, senior and managing attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the recently released videos show that police intimidated vulnerable people and broke the law in arresting them.
“You can’t seize people without an individualized suspicion that they’re doing something wrong, and being a low income person is not doing something wrong,” said Bourquin, senior and managing attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Boston Police Department spokesman, Detective Sergeant John Boyle, said Operation Clean Sweep was part of a larger effort last summer to address a spike in crime in the area.
“This unprecedented step was taken, not only to address this statistical increase in the area, but also in direct response to numerous complaints from concerned community members experiencing the harsh impacts of this surge in criminal activity and the associated impacts to their quality of life,” Boyle said in a released statement that did not address the agency’s stop-and-frisk tactics.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh did not respond directly to questions about the legality of the stops, but said the administration has worked “tirelessly” to balance the health and safety needs of those who call the South End home, including those suffering from substance abuse.
“Helping residents in need is Mayor’s Walsh’s top priority,” Samantha Ormsby said.
The release of the footage, which was first reported by WBUR, comes amid renewed scrutiny of Boston police tactics, including the use of field interrogations, a practice otherwise known as “stop and frisk.”
Delores Jones-Brown, who teaches criminal justice at the University of New Haven, was skeptical of the department’s sweep. It’s illegal to detain someone for questioning without a reasonable suspicion that they’ve broken a law, she said. “Here it just sounds like they’re harassing people on the street,” she added.
In several interactions, captured in hours of body camera footage, officers tell people outside the Southampton Street shelter in Newmarket Square that they cannot leave without first producing identification. The officers kept the pedestrians confined to the sidewalk and peppered them with questions.
In one video, officers tell a group of men that, because the shelter was closed for the evening, they were trespassing and would be detained until officers checked their identification.
“We just can’t have people hanging here,” the officer said.
Officers can also be heard discussing outstanding warrants against some of those held for questioning.
At one point, the video showed a police supervisor urging officers to keep their body-worn cameras in place, “because he wanted to show ‘the ACLU’ that they were doing things ‘by the book.’”
The ACLU took umbrage with that assessment.
“It is not clear what ‘book’ the detective was referring to, but it clearly was not a law book — as what was done to these people clearly violated both state and federal constitutional law,” said Bourquin, of the ACLU. “This is just another example of why police reform is so needed in the Commonwealth.”
Advocates for the homeless quickly denounced the raids, blasting the department for its tactics and the city for its struggles to mitigate the impact of the opioid epidemic on the South End neighborhood.
“Operation Clean Sweep may have taken 20, 30 people off the street who should not have been on the street . . . but it’s not going to solve the problem,” George Stergios, president of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association, said following the raids.
In public and private, police touted the sweep as a success, detailing the number of people arrested on outstanding warrants. Boston Police Commissioner William Gross commended officers following the raid, according to documents obtained by the ACLU.
“Excellent job,” Gross wrote in an Aug. 1 e-mail detailing the arrests.
In a released statement, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said she looks forward to discussing the legal, public safety and public health” implications of the operation with the ACLU.
“When our limited resources are dedicated to operations that actually interfere with the rights and accessibility of treatment for vulnerable individuals it only exacerbates the harm they are experiencing,” she said.
Vernal Coleman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @vernalcoleman. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.