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Concerned over bias, Boston councilors want to probe city’s gang database

Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell.
Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Boston city councilors are pushing to examine the city’s gang database over concerns that Black and brown city residents are disproportionately represented in the database.

Councilor Andrea Campbell, a consistent proponent of police reform who is running for mayor, said city authorities should be looking at how the database is compiled, how it’s used by not only Boston police, but the city’s school system, as well as other agencies.

“We’re in a critical moment, where there is real attention and urgency around systematic racism and racial disparities in our policing system nationally and in the city of Boston, where Black and brown residents are disproportionately policed,” said Campbell during Wednesday’s council meeting, which was conducted virtually.

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Campbell is one of the co-sponsors of a hearing order that calls for a discussion of the database’s structure with Boston police and advocates. The order states that Boston police and its intelligence gathering operation known as Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC, “uses an arbitrary point system to determine a person’s suspected gang involvement and affiliation.” The gang database last year showed that more than 90 percent of those in the database were classified as Black or Latinx, according to the councilors.

According to the department, information gathered by BRIC “pinpoints areas of crime, shootings and gang violence, as well as helping to identify major players and ex-offenders.” It also provides terrorism intelligence, according to authorities.

In a lengthy statement Wednesday, Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a police department spokesman, said in part, its “Gang Assessment Database is accompanied by a robust verification process that is in compliance with our policies and procedures and no individual can be entered automatically. . . . [R]egardless of point value, analysis of one’s behavior as it pertains to their involvement with an identified gang is required as a means for verification. . . .”

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Some have called for BRIC’s abolition, saying it unjustly targets people of color.

At Wednesday’s council meeting, Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, a former public defender who co-sponsored the hearing order, suggested the gang database was deeply flawed.

“There’s clearly racial biases that are in play in this,” he said. “There’s clearly over-policing that are in play with this.”

The Globe reported earlier this year that Boston police overwhelmingly singled out Black people for street investigations in 2019, department records show, a disparity that has persisted even as the number of reported stops, searches, and observations has decreased over the last decade. Field investigation and observations, or FIOs, add more points to an individual’s gang database record, according to Wednesday’s hearing order.

Arroyo said there are times when people do not realize that they are listed as a gang associate in the database until there is “another crucial moment in their life” such as an immigration hearing or a civil or criminal court case.

The matter was referred to the council’s public safety and criminal justice committee.

Wednesday’s hearing order comes amid a much broader discussion about police reform and systemic racism both locally and nationally. Last month, Arroyo called for department’s overtime protocols to be scrutinized.

In September, a task force appointed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh called for Boston police to increase transparency and accountability within its fledgling police body camera program, to diversify its ranks, and to expand training for implicit bias among officers. It also recommended the creation of a new, independent agency that would be empowered to review all allegations of police misconduct and use of force, with the ability to subpoena witnesses.

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Walsh recently pushed for the state’s civil service system that governs the police department’s hirings to include a preference for prospective officers who graduated from the city’s high schools in an attempt to diversify the department.

Gal Tziperman Lotan of Globe staff contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.