When about 100 white supremacists marched through downtown Boston wielding riot shields on July 2, Mayor Michelle Wu admitted that police were caught by surprise.
Now, records suggest Boston police officials weren’t all that curious to learn more, even while the racist march, which included an altercation with a Black man, unfolded.
On that day, Boston police apparently did not conduct a single field interrogation of white supremacists. It did, however, report questioning or observing nearly 50 other people around the city — primarily Black men — according to reports of field interrogation and observations, or FIOs, from that day that were obtained by The Boston Globe through a public records request.
The lack of awareness, both before and during the march by members of Patriot Front, raises questions about police intelligence strategies and whether they’re sufficiently focused on the growing threat of white supremacist violence, according to authorities on policing.
Local municipal police departments tend to have a blind spot when it comes to white supremacist groups, said Shannon Reid, an associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
”There’s a misperception, when we’re talking about gangs. There’s an automatic bias towards Black and brown youths,” Reid said.
Boston police vehemently deny the department’s intelligence gathering neglects white supremacists, noting the department is still determining whether Patriot Front and a second white supremacist group, Nationalist Social Club 131 (NSC-131), meet the definition of a gang under its rules.
Boston police Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a department spokesman, said in a statement that “we remain committed to protecting the residents of Boston from extremist groups through intelligence gathering, investigation and proactive community policing.”
But the charge of bias against people of color is one BPD has heard for a long time, especially regarding the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC.
BRIC is a so-called fusion center that shares information among multiple law enforcement agencies, and it’s charged with providing intelligence on terrorism. It’s also set up to pinpoint “areas of crime, shootings and gang violence, as well as helping to identify major players and ex-offenders.”
The Boston Police Department, through its Bureau of Intelligence and Analysis, is the managing authority of BRIC, and representatives from other local and federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security Office of Intelligence & Analysis and the FBI’s Boston field office, are also assigned to the center, according to the BPD.
Anticipating threats like the Patriot Front march is the whole reason institutions such as BRIC exist, according to Keith Taylor, a former sergeant in the New York City Police Department who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
”It’s a big problem when law enforcement is not aware of an oncoming threat to the citizens of the jurisdiction they’re responsible for,” he said.
But BRIC’s database of gang members is overwhelmingly people of color, suggesting law enforcement has made limited inroads into white gang activity. As of late July, whites account for 10.5 percent of entries into the database, according to Boston police, although some may be white and Hispanic. More than 86 percent of those listed are Black.
On the day of the Patriot Front march, police records obtained by the Globe show that the proportions weren’t much different. Boston police reported field interrogations and observations of 46 people: 69 percent were Black. Of the 11 people identified as white in the FIOs, eight were said to be of “Hispanic origin.”
FIO is a catchall phrase used to describe a range of investigative techniques, from simply taking note of a person on the street to questioning and searching someone. It can generate information that can be used to land someone on the BRIC gang database. However, last year BPD clarified its rules so that FIOs “shall not be used as the sole verification criteria for any individual” to be included on the database’s rolls.
For example, one FIO report from July 2 documented a traffic stop of two Black men in a Honda Accord on Boylston Street around midnight. Another featured police observing a Black man near Congress and Sudbury streets around 3 a.m., describing him as a known gang associate with “violent tendencies.”
In the mid-afternoon, police in Jamaica Plain performed FIOs on 11 people thought to have connections to a neighborhood street gang. “Officers noted the above Heath Street associates in the courtyard and parking lot at 962 Parker Street,” read that report.
While Boston police typically do not name individuals listed in the gang database, in the FIOs for July 2, there was not a single mention of the Patriot Front march.
“It’s not surprising that an institution that has shown us time and time again that they have a problem with racism is of course not going to pay attention to white supremacy in this way,” said Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Boston-based Muslim Justice League.
A July memo from BRIC obtained by the Globe suggests police do regard white supremacists as a “current threat,” noting that multiple groups inspired by “white, racially, or ethnically motivated violent extremism” had increased activity in the region.
Why were there no FIOs with Patriot Front members? Michael Cox, executive director of Black and Pink Massachusetts, who calls for the elimination of BRIC, believes it’s simple racism.
”They are not looking for hate or terrorist groups composed of white individuals,” said Cox, who is not related to the new Boston police commissioner of the same name.
Historically, Black people are far more likely to be the subject of street investigations by Boston police than white people. In 2020, for instance, Black people were the subject of FIOs 62 percent of the time, despite making up only about one-quarter of the city’s population.
But Taylor, the former NYPD sergeant, said Boston police may have other ways of gathering information beyond what they report as a field interrogation or observation. “I would imagine there would be [law enforcement] assets there not known to the public,” Taylor said.
Police spokesman Boyle also defended the city’s approach to intelligence gathering, saying BRIC’s “efforts have prevented a countless number of crimes, contributed critical information to complex investigations, improved the quality of life for residents, ensured the safety and security for businesses and visitors, exonerated misidentified suspects, located missing persons, sought mental health treatment for those in need, and brought justice for the victims of tragic offenses.”
Boyle reiterated that BPD doesn’t release information about who is in the gang database, but explained that white supremacists have a greater chance of inclusion as they engage in more activities in Boston.
Patriot Front was born in the aftermath of the violent 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. The core number of members is relatively small — estimates range from around 150 to 200 nationally, with 15 to 20 in New England — and their tactics can sometimes seem amateurish. But that, experts say, should not distract from the group’s virulent ideology. There have been hundreds of incidents involving Patriot Front members in Massachusetts and Rhode Island this year alone, according to statistics compiled by the Anti-Defamation League.
NSC-131, meanwhile, has been classified as a neo-Nazi group by the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center. In Boston, the group recently demonstrated against at least two events that featured a drag queen story hour, and during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in South Boston earlier this year its members displayed a banner that read, “Keep Boston Irish.”
Currently, BRIC makes a significant distinction between the two groups.
“The Nationalist Social Club’s (NSC-131) recent rhetoric and actions underscore their desire to create situations that could result in physical violence,” according to the July BRIC memo, which was released after the July 2 march, but did not specifically mention that demonstration. “Patriot Front continues to organize events that will result in a ‘confrontational dynamic,’ however, they remain careful not to publicly advocate for violence.”
David Siegel, a professor at New England Law | Boston said it’s important to understand what white supremacists are trying to accomplish. Their rhetoric is protected by the First Amendment and is not illegal. But inciting violence is a crime, so if people at a demonstration target another demonstration with violence or intend to cause a riot, charges can be brought.
White supremacy, he said, represents “the kind of problem that requires a sustained commitment of investigative and prosecutorial resources.”
He disagreed with BPD’s assessment of the efficacy of the local gang database, saying it has not been particularly useful as a law enforcement tool, and is not designed to categorize people who are from far outside of Boston. But, he said, law enforcement should be checking whether there are any connections between, say, local white supremacists and the ones who were arrested in Idaho earlier this year after allegedly planning to disrupt a gay pride event.
”If any of those people were associated with these people, that’s the kind of thing they should have in the BRIC,” he said.
There were connections between participants in the Boston march and the Idaho incident. Colton M. Brown, 23, of Ravensdale, Wash., received a criminal citation from police in Massachusetts for illegally attaching a license plate to the U-Haul the group used to transport the riot shields used in the local march. Brown was also among the group who was arrested in Idaho, as were at least three others who were involved in the Boston march.