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The Boston Police gang database gets overdue attention

A program plagued by a lack of transparency and accountability demands reform.

There are currently 3,406 individuals in the Boston Police Department gang assessment database.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

For years, the Boston Police Department’s notorious gang database has troubled local elected officials and civil rights advocates, who have raised serious concerns about the list of suspected associates of criminal street gangs: What makes someone land in the database? How exactly it is being used by police and other law enforcement agencies? How effective is the list overall in preventing crime?

Recently, the veil of secrecy has started to fray as city councilors and organizations like the ACLU of Massachusetts and other advocates have demanded transparency via public hearings, public records requests, and even lawsuits. For instance, a lawsuit is how the ACLU found out that, in early 2019, more than 90 percent of the more than 4,700 individuals in the gang database at that time were Black or Latino.


A recent opinion from the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston validates some concerns about the BPD gang list. The case involved a Salvadoran immigrant whose asylum case was dismissed in part because of his identification by the BPD as a likely MS-13 gang member. But the identification was based on details from three years prior, an example of what the federal court pointed to as flaws in the gang database, “including its reliance on an erratic point system built on unsubstantiated inferences.”

The BPD made crucial amendments to the procedures around the gang assessment database last year. While the new changes bring in some safeguards and a measure of transparency to the database, it still should be used narrowly and with utmost care. It’s one thing to use the database for intelligence sharing or to be generally aware of what’s going on in the community, but police should make sure that information from the database isn’t treated like actual evidence or used against people in legal proceedings, such as the Salvadoran man’s asylum case.


In an e-mailed statement, Boston Police spokesman John Boyle said “there is a lot of misunderstanding about” the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, the BPD unit that manages the gang assessment database and whose analysts verify gang association of certain individuals and ultimately determine their entry into the database. Among the changes made to the regulations last summer, perhaps the most crucial one is that a police report called Field Interaction/Observation/Encounter — which is used by officers to document interactions with those suspected of criminal activity or their associates, and can include interrogations, searching someone, consensual encounters, or even simply noting a person on the street — won’t be used as the sole criteria for verification of gang association. Another update is that some individuals in the database who had been categorized as “inactive” before will now be reviewed for removal from the list.

But the changes haven’t satisfied critics. “To be honest, in terms of the what exactly [BPD] has changed and how effective that’s been, it’s still a little opaque,” said Phillip Torrey, director of the Crimmigration Clinic at Harvard Law School. The clinic offered expertise in the recently won case in the Appeals Court. “And to my knowledge, they still use this arbitrary point system where I’ve seen cases of people who get X amount of points for talking to somebody who BPD thinks is a gang affiliate. And then another person does the exact same thing and they get Y amount of points. So, I haven’t seen consistency within that sort of arbitrary point system.”


Boyle said there are currently 3,406 individuals in the gang assessment database, per the annual report sent to Mayor Michelle Wu and the City Council earlier this month. In the last calendar year, 59 individuals were added and 609 names were removed from it. Boyle said the BPD “does not maintain any personal identifying information on the individuals purged from the database.”

There is no doubt that gang violence is a serious problem, affecting residents of some of the city’s most marginalized neighborhoods. Noting that violence in Boston is frequently driven by gang dynamics, Boyle said the database “is an important tool that assists the City’s collective efforts to prevent violence, harm, and associated trauma in our neighborhoods, particularly from such gangs.” But no specific crime prevention data were provided. During a public hearing with Boston city councilors last year, the director of the BRIC said he didn’t think the database had ever helped solve a murder, according to a report in CommonWealth magazine.

Kade Crockford, director of the technology for liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, agreed that “overall, not a whole lot has changed” with the gang database in Boston. Boston is not unique in the sense that “its police gang database is filled with the names of mostly Black and Latino men,” Crockford added. Along with Boston, other cities that maintain police gang databases have also been criticized for using factors that are subjective, Crockford said. “These are factors that relate to the neighborhood that a person lives in, a person’s family, friends, associations, and social networks as possible indications of gang membership. That’s one of the reasons these systems are so deeply concerning to civil rights advocates.”


It isn’t quite a national movement yet, but some law enforcement agencies have started to move away from maintaining gang lists in the first place, or to reduce their use. Cook County in Illinois, for example, began taking steps in 2019 to eliminate its regional database. The then-attorney general in California, Xavier Becerra, ordered law enforcement agencies all over the state to stop using records from a statewide gang database kept by the Los Angeles Police Department. The list had come under heavy criticism for being racially biased. (A spokesperson for Attorney General Maura Healey said that in Massachusetts the attorney general does not have statutory authority to order local police departments to change their practices.)

That BPD took steps to reform its own gang database is a move in the right direction. But safeguards governing how the list is used would be even better.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.