After a man was gunned down in front of a home on Astoria Street in Mattapan where dozens had gathered for a barbecue last month, about 70 potential witnesses were boarded onto an MBTA bus and taken to Boston police headquarters, where they were questioned for hours.
The witnesses were told not to discuss what they’d seen with each other, but there was no one on the bus to ensure that didn’t happen, said one of the witnesses, who did not want to be named because she feared for her safety. And all of the witnesses were forced to give police their names, she said.
“Nothing was done voluntarily,” the woman said. “It was tiring and stressful. Mothers had to wake up their kids to take them along.”
Boston police dispute that account, saying that the witnesses were not forced to give their names, but they acknowledge that the department occasionally uses buses to corral witnesses, both as a convenience and to ensure that all possible witnesses to a crime are accounted for.
“We only do it in circumstances where it’s more cumbersome to do it by cruiser,” said Officer Rachel McGuire, a Boston police spokeswoman. “It’s easier to take them to headquarters. Interviewing at the scene can be hectic and we don’t want to miss anything.”
But criminal justice experts and civil rights attorneys say the practice could hurt criminal investigations.
“You’re compromising the ability to get objective witnesses,” said Massachusetts Bar Association president Robert Harnais. “[Police] have an obligation to keep witnesses apart. When you use the word ‘convenient,’ it doesn’t go in the same sentence as ‘justice’ and ‘people’s rights.’”
McGuire said witnesses are advised not to speak to each other and a detective is stationed aboard a bus with witnesses to ensure there are no conversations. She said witnesses have a choice as to whether to get on the bus and they are allowed to remain anonymous.
“Nobody can force a witness to give a statement,” McGuire said. “In incidents where someone was shot or stabbed, the hope is that people would come forward.”
Ed Davis, who led the Boston department from 2006 to 2013, said the practice of using buses to take groups of witnesses to a police station for interviews predates his time as commissioner.
And a spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney’s office defended the practice, downplaying the possibility of damaging a criminal case.
“As long as the witnesses are cautioned not to share their observations and there’s some level of supervision, simple proximity will not taint their accounts,” said Jake Wark . “Most witnesses understand that investigators are interested in what they saw with their own eyes rather than what they heard from other people, and that’s what they provide.”
Others remain concerned about the practice.
Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police officer who is now a criminology professor at Merrimack College, questioned the legality and safety of busing the witnesses after the Mattapan shooting in June, in which Andrew Flonory, 31, was killed.
“Do people feel they are free to leave?” he said. “What legal authority do police have to compel someone to get on the bus? What if someone is seen as giving information? Who knows the perpetrator isn’t on the bus as well?”
Carl Williams, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said he had been contacted by people who were concerned their rights had been violated.
He said it is a problem “when a person doesn’t know they have an option to not go.”
No arrests have been made in the June 18 shooting of Flonory on Astoria Street. Police say the investigation is ongoing.
In the past 15 years, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has received only a handful of requests from the police department for a bus to ferry witnesses, said agency spokesman Joe Pesaturo.
The call typically comes from an on-scene police supervisor or from the district attorney’s office, officials said.
Buses are not the only vehicles the Boston police have used. In April, more than two dozen passengers aboard a duck boat that struck and killed a woman on a scooter were taken to police headquarters on a second duck boat, McGuire said.