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Attorney general investigating Boston police gang unit and database

Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s office is investigating the Boston Police Department’s gang unit after receiving allegations of racially biased policing.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The state attorney general’s office is investigating the Boston police gang unit and database over allegations of racially biased policing, and it’s asking defense attorneys for help.

Andrea Campbell’s office said its Civil Rights Division’s investigation of the Youth Violence Strike Force is ongoing and has not reached any findings or conclusions. A spokeswoman said that if the office finds a problem, Campbell would take it to the Police Department and aim to reform the unit.

The AG’s office said it’s not focused on specific officers, but rather patterns and practices by the gang unit as a whole over the past five years.

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The investigation, the office said, began last summer when now-Governor Maura Healey led the office. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

A Boston police spokeswoman said in an e-mail, “We are aware of the review and will continue to cooperate with the Attorney General’s Office.”

Campbell is hoping for an assist from defense attorneys. According to an e-mail obtained by The Boston Globe, the Committee for Public Counsel Services distributed what it said was a message from the attorney general’s office asking for any lawyers whose clients had brushes with the gang unit since 2018 to contact the AG. The committee obtains legal representation for people who can’t afford it.

The e-mail quotes the attorney general’s office as saying the review “is focused on racial disparities in the rates at which people are stopped and frisked by the members of the [gang] unit, as well as an assessment of whether those stops and frisks are supported by an adequate constitutional justification.”

The publication Dig Boston reported on an e-mail with the same language sent around by the advocacy group Suffolk Lawyers for Justice.

Campbell’s office declined to comment further on the investigation or on the e-mail.

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The gang database has long been a flashpoint for activists who say it focuses too much on Black and Hispanic young men, resulting in overpolicing based on scant information that’s sometimes wrong. Some critics, including several city councilors, want to get rid of the database.

Proponents say the database is an important tool to keep tabs on known gang members who are perpetrating violent crime. Police have contended that a heavy majority of people on the list have self-identified gang affiliation, and that much of the street violence in the city stems from gang disputes large and small. As of last year, the list included more than 3,000 names.

Advocates and officials on the left have increased the focus on allegations of racism in policing in recent years, particularly following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020, which kicked off months of protests around the country.

A 2020 state police reform law gave the attorney general’s office the authority to investigate allegations of patterns of racially biased policing. The Peace Officer Standards & Training Commission, an oversight panel created as part of that law, can refer allegations to the AG’s office, but the office also can initiate an investigation on its own under the new rules.

This week, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that people arrested after a pat-and-frisk search on the street have the right to challenge a resulting criminal prosecution on the grounds they may have been targeted on the basis of race. The SJC ruled the arrest in question by members of the Youth Violence Strike Force was valid and didn’t violate the Constitution.

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The defense had presented a Worcester State University professor, Mary Fowler, who had analyzed two officers’ field interrogation and observation reports from January 2017 through August 2018 and concluded they had engaged in racial profiling. Using US Census data about the racial makeup in the areas where the officers conducted their FIOs, Fowler concluded Black individuals were “more than five times as likely to be stopped as other individuals,” the SJC said.

Campbell is a former Boston city councilor and served a term each as the body’s president and its public safety chair. Then the district councilor from Mattapan, Campbell ran for mayor in 2021 on a platform that included reform and budget cuts for the Police Department and plans to decrease the number of officers in specialized units, moving people out of entities like the gang unit and back onto patrols.



Sean Cotter can be reached at sean.cotter@globe.com. Follow him @cotterreporter.