Police removed more than 600 names from a Boston gang database last year as authorities purged “inactive” individuals from the system’s rolls, but with more than 3,000 people still listed in the controversial database, calls for the program’s dismantling persist.
The removal of 609 names was revealed in a letter last month from Boston police Interim Commissioner Gregory Long to Mayor Michelle Wu and City Council President Ed Flynn, which the Globe obtained through a public records request. According to the letter, 59 names were added to the database list last year.
For years now, councilors and civil rights advocates have demanded more details about the database, seeking to probe concerns that Black and Latinx city residents are disproportionately represented in its rolls. Even with the removal of hundreds of names, those concerns of racism remain, and a recent court ruling called out flaws in the database, including “its reliance on an erratic point system built on unsubstantiated inferences.”
Boston police recently said 3,340 people are still logged in the database. The agency said it does not maintain any personal identifying information about those who were purged.
The department continues to defend the program, saying it has proved “indispensable in preventing violent crime.” If it were eliminated, as some critics have called for, it “would have a severe effect on our ability to provide public safety,” a spokesman said.
”Like many other US cities, the city of Boston has long been challenged by the impact of crime and social harm caused by violent street gangs, which typically manifests in the form of retaliatory violence,” said Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a department spokesman, in response to inquiries from the Globe about the database.
“Violence in Boston is frequently driven by gang dynamics, with a very small number of people causing a disproportionate amount of harm,” he said. “The Boston Police Department’s Gang Assessment Database is an important tool that assists the city’s collective efforts to prevent violence, harm, and associated trauma in our neighborhoods.”
Some city officials, however, remain unmoved by the department’s argument.
“Whether people are added or removed . . . the fact of the matter is that we lack transparency, accountability, and oversight over the gang database,” said Councilor Julia Mejia.
“We need to do away with the gang database completely, not dismantle it piece by piece,” she said.
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo also wants to abolish the database. “As I see it, the fact that they only took off that many [names] is not going to cut it,” said Arroyo, who is running for Suffolk district attorney. He said the entire database list is suspect, adding that police have failed to prove its worth “in any way, shape, or form.”
“They haven’t made a case for its continued existence,” he said.
Arroyo’s council colleague, Ruthzee Louijeune, concurred, saying the points system used for the database is not effective, and has led to Black and Hispanic people being wrongly included.
“A flawed system with names taken off and removed is still a flawed system,” she said.
To land in the database, an individual is assigned points based on a verification system, and a minimum of 10 points is needed for inclusion in the program, which is maintained by an intelligence gathering operation known as Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC.
The criteria includes two points for an interaction with a known gang associate; five points for information from a reliable confidential informant; five points for information developed during an investigation or surveillance; and eight points for a known group tattoo or marking, among a list of other categories.
Louijeune and Mejia referenced a recent court case, in which a panel of federal judges ruled in favor of a Salvadoran national who said law enforcement erroneously implicated him as an MS-13 gang member. The gang database — specifically, problems the judges identified with how it was compiled — was central to that ruling, with the court finding that “the list of ‘items or activities’ that could lead to ‘verification for entry into the Gang Assessment Database’ was shockingly wide-ranging.”
Additionally, the point system was applied to Cristian Josue Diaz Ortiz “in a haphazard manner,” the court stated. The ruling meant that Diaz Ortiz could continue to pursue his claim for asylum.
Louijeune called that case a “worst case scenario” when it comes to the gang database.
“It’s absolutely time to move past it,” she said of the database.
Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson said in a statement that the ratio of removals to additions in 2021 “leads one to believe that there were formerly too many people in the database.” She said the removal of names “is a move in the right direction of decriminalizing our youth who do not deserve, based on their actions, to be catalogued as criminals.”
In a campaign questionnaire last year, Wu, then a mayoral candidate, said she supported eliminating the database. But asked about it recently, she was circumspect in a written response.
“As our search for a new police commissioner proceeds, community feedback from our listening sessions has been clear that this leader must be a partner in transforming the culture and structures of public safety and health to make progress toward racial equity in Boston,” Wu said.
Isaac Yablo, a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s sociology department whose research includes gangs and policing, said that many of those removed from the database — perhaps as much as a third — were either dead or no longer lived in Boston. More scrutiny of policing in general during the past two years prompted the changes to the database, he said.
“Where they were very liberal before with who they would put on, they’re being forced to be a lot more conservative and have legitimate evidence behind classifying someone as a gang member,” he said.
Gang databases are often used in solely punitive ways, said Yablo, who called them “for the most part . . . extremely terrible.”
He did acknowledge such sources of information can be helpful for outreach workers in understanding how police identify gang members. It’s up to those in power to weigh the cost-benefit of keeping it or doing away with it, he said.
Yablo acknowledged that there are individuals on the database’s roster who have self-identified as gang members or who have proved to have significant gang ties.
“Is it an accurate reflection of all gangs? No. Is it an accurate reflection of the individuals that have been proven to have a propensity to drive violence in all situations? No,” Yablo said. “But there is some truth to the gang database.”
BRIC, the intelligence gathering operation, analyzes the validity of supporting police documents and records when assessing various information for an individual and whether it fits with the criteria for inclusion. That organization can decline to enter people into the database who meet the 10-point threshold but are determined not to be engaging in gang-related criminal activity, said Boyle, the department spokesman.
In a clarification made to department rules last year, the department stated that field interrogation and observations, or FIOs, “shall not be used as the sole verification criteria for any individual.” An FIO is a catch-all phrase used to describe a range of investigative techniques, from simply taking note of a person on the street to questioning and searching someone. The number of FIOs in Boston has decreased in recent years, but stark racial disparities in the FIOs, a longtime target of criticism by civil rights advocates, have persisted.