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For Boston’s police intelligence gathering operation, more barbed questions

Police Commissioner Michael Cox listened to a question at a press conference at Boston Police Headquarters in August 2023. Cox recently appeared before the Boston City Council to defend the Boston police's use of an intelligence center database.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A controversial Boston police intelligence gathering center drew heated criticism and repeated questions over alleged civil liberties violations and racial profiling concerns Friday during a City Council hearing, as department brass defended the operation as an essential tool that helps keep communities safe.

The city is poised to receive $3.4 million in federal grants for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, a so-called “fusion center” that maintains, among other duties, the city’s gang database or a compilation of suspected gang members.

Four grants would allow the center, known as BRIC, to hire an additional eight analysts and would help the center bolster its capabilities to combat gang-related crime and terrorism and provide emergency responses.

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But the City Council must approve the city’s acceptance of the grants, and the legislative body has refused to act on them as councilors push for wider discussions on police reform. Indeed, some of the grants under consideration Friday were leftover from previous fiscal years, as far back as 2020.

Specifically, councilors and civil rights advocates have for years demanded more details about BRIC’s gang database, seeking to probe concerns that Black and Latinx city residents have historically been disproportionately represented in its rolls. Some progressive-minded reformists have called for its dismantling.

The pointed questions continued during Friday’s hearing.

“Where are we in terms of trust?” asked Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, who noted that flaws with the operation of BRIC have been exposed in outside court litigation.

For instance, a court ruling last year called out BRIC’s gang database for “its reliance on an erratic point system built on unsubstantiated inferences.”

In that case, 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. Flaws with the gang database specifically, problems the judges identified with how it was compiled — were 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.”

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“Many of us do not believe that BRIC is operating with the best intentions of Black and brown, and Muslims, and people of diverse experiences,” Councilor Julia Mejia said Friday. “We do not have that data … that makes us believe that you do ... have our best interests in mind.”

Law enforcement officials and some city councilors defended BRIC. Council President Ed Flynn said BRIC does “very important work, work preventing heinous crime.” Councilor Michael Flaherty, who chaired the hearing, said that BRIC plays a role in solving homicides in Boston.

Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox said BRIC’s work is not about vilifying people of color.

“It’s really about … identifying the people who are driving the crime, violent crime in our city, and keeping track of that information,” Cox said.

City officials at Friday’s hearing emphasized that BRIC maintains compliance with the city’s Trust Act, which prohibits Boston police from getting involved in deportation matters. The police department has faced questions in the past about the scope of its collaboration with immigration authorities.

According to BPD, BRIC analyzes various police records and information to determine whether an individual fits the criteria for inclusion in its gang database. The center can still decline to enter people into the database who meet the 10-point threshold for inclusion but are determined not to be engaging in gang-related criminal activity.

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Friday’s hearing stretched over four hours and featured animated testimony from advocates who railed against BRIC.

Alex Marthews, chair of the civil liberties organization Digital Fourth, accused BRIC of “mission creep,” saying the center has inappropriately surveilled protesters and activists and enabled “data-fueled harassment of young Bostonians of color.”

”BRIC is a hammer in search of a nail,” he said.

Fatema Ahmad, a Dorchester resident and executive director of Muslim Justice League, said the BRIC operation casts too wide of a net in its intelligence gathering and lacks transparency.

“This has harmed people,” she said. “It harms real people.”

Kade Crockford, who directs the Technology for Liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union Massachusetts, said BRIC can collect and share information about someone without ever needing a criminal predicate.

“That is very troubling,” Crockford said via Zoom during the hearing. “The Boston Police Department is charged with investigating crimes, not people’s political views or speech.”

The council could vote on the various BRIC grants as soon as Wednesday.


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