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Over concerns, Boston council approves $3.4 million in controversial BRIC grants

The Boston City Council approved the funding for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, which maintains the city’s gang database and coordinates antiterrorism efforts with other law enforcement agencies, by a series of 7-5 votes.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

With votes that broke along racial lines, the Boston City Council Wednesday passed a collection of grants totaling $3.4 million in additional funding for a controversial police intelligence gathering center amid concerns over potential civil liberties violations and racial profiling.

The council approved the funding for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, which maintains the city’s gang database and coordinates antiterrorism efforts with other law enforcement agencies, by a series of 7-5 votes. All councilors who voted in favor of the grants were white, while all those who voted against them were people of color.

The four grants, awarded by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety & Security, would allow the center, commonly referred to as BRIC, to hire an additional eight analysts and bolster its capabilities to combat gang-related crime and terrorism and provide emergency responses. Four of the analysts would “monitor active events and communicate in real-time,” two would coordinate with the State Police, MBTA police, and MassPort police, and two would help bolster an initiative designed to share information directly with residents with a goal of building trust, according to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.

“BRIC helps solve crimes,” said Councilor Michael Flaherty, who was among those who voted in favor of the grants. Flaherty added that BRIC does much more than maintain a gang database, noting that the center helps locate missing children and seniors and solve serious crimes like homicides and carjackings.

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But other councilors suggested that any potential benefits offered by the center are outweighed by concerns involving disparate treatment of Black and Latinx residents.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said BRIC has yet to prove its worth and noted that the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, led by former Boston city councilor Andrea Campbell, is currently investigating racial discrimination allegations regarding the construction and operation of the BRIC’s gang database.

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“I don’t believe it makes us safer,” Arroyo said.

Created in 2005, BRIC is referred to as a fusion center and shares information among multiple law enforcement agencies, including intelligence on terrorism. The city’s website described BRIC as being designed to pinpoint “areas of crime, shootings and gang violence, as well as helping to identify major players and ex-offenders.” According to Boston police, there are currently 46 employees on BRIC’s staff.

Some privacy advocates contend that government and law enforcement authorities have tried to justify fusion centers like BRIC by insisting they are necessary for agencies to break down communication silos when fighting crime and terrorism in a post-9/11 world.

The City Council had previously declined to act on the grants, while calling for wider discussions on police reform. Indeed, the BRIC grants passed Wednesday were leftover from the previous four fiscal years.

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 the center’s dismantling.

A federal appeals court in Boston last year found flaws in BRIC’s gang database, including “its reliance on an erratic point system built on unsubstantiated inferences”

The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a Salvadoran national who said police placed him in the gang database after wrongly identifying him as an MS-13 member. However, the court noted that the man was deported while the case was pending. The court wrote 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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Wu voted against such grant funding for BRIC as a councilor but sent a letter to the council earlier this week urging members to support the grants.

“At the time, I shared particular concerns about the BRIC’s management of the gang assessment database and how surveillance was being used to further a school-to-deportation or school to prison pipeline,” Wu wrote.

In her letter, Wu argued that things have changed since she voted against BRIC grant funding in 2021. Specifically, the city has passed an ordinance for community oversight over surveillance, including the regulation of information-sharing of public school students, Boston police have amended criteria for the gang database, officials have established new police watchdogs on the city and state levels, and the city has different leadership at BPD, among other things.

“Our administration introduced those BRIC grant dockets in September 2023, only after setting a solid foundation for accountability and coordination with the steps outlined above and many others,” Wu wrote.

However, Councilor Kendra Lara, who voted against the BRIC grants on Wednesday, said multiple police reform initiatives in the city have so far failed to make a substantial, real-world impact. She called approval of the grants “a regressive step” for police reform efforts.

“I really want to call on us to think about the human impact of what we’re trying to fund,” she said.

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City officials recently 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.

Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, who also voted against the grants, lamented a lack of “transparency and accountability” regarding BRIC and said there were too many unanswered questions about the center’s operations. Without further review, she said, there is no effective mechanism to hold BRIC accountable for misconduct and mistakes.

“I continue to have serious concerns that if we approve these grants we validate and perpetuate systems of discrimination and prejudice,” she said.

Council President Ed Flynn voted in favor of the proposal, saying BRIC plays an important role in the city, noting that most major police departments have an intelligence gathering operation to prevent crime.

“We also have to ensure that the men and women of Boston police have the necessary tools and resources to keep our city safe,” Flynn said.

Another supporter of the BRIC grants, Flaherty, said BRIC is vital to Boston and is really about “collecting facts and data,” a notion that was reiterated by Councilor Frank Baker, who also voted in favor of the funding.

“BRIC is intelligence,” Baker said. “We want intelligent police.”

In a Wednesday statement, Wu said that “BRIC plays a critical role in providing the intelligence and analysis to close gaps through deploying coordinated resources and services.”

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