Community leaders praised Boston police Saturday for pulling back on a controversial plan to spend up to $1.4 million on software to monitor social media postings for criminal activity and threats to public safety.
“I think they listen to the community,” said City Councilor Andrea Campbell, chairwoman of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee. “We received a lot of e-mails and phone calls about this.”
Police Commissioner William B. Evans announced Friday evening that the department was scrapping the plan, at least for now. The technology the department was considering would have searched blogs, websites, chat rooms, and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Evans had said it would not be used to monitor ordinary people, but could help police keep the public safe from violence, terrorism, human trafficking, and pedophiles.
But more than a dozen civil rights groups and religious organizations had called on city officials to abandon the plan. In his announcement Friday, Evans said that after reviewing proposals submitted by three companies, he determined the technology “exceeds the needs” of the department.
“We have the public’s best interest at heart,” Boston police spokeswoman Officer Rachel McGuire said Saturday. “The stuff that we’re looking for is technology that’s going to keep the public safe, with their privacy in mind. We had to regroup and go back to the drawing board. It’s a learning process, to learn about the technology, what’s out there, and we’ll find something that fits for the department’s needs and the public’s needs.”
Councilor Timothy McCarthy said the department’s decision showed that the city had listened to citizen concerns.
“I’m not surprised by them listening, and we’ll continue to work with them in the very near future,” he said.
Advocates had been concerned the technology would violate people’s free speech and privacy rights, though police already search social media, and many postings are public.
“We’re very concerned that opening the door to social media monitoring would inevitably lead to discrimation against people of color, or associations such as Black Lives Matter, that have been working towards racial justice and police accountability,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.
Espinoza-Madrigal said police should not search social media at all, because the risk of importing implicit bias into the digital realm is too great. He said the money should instead be spent on training in implicit bias and cultural competency, as well as instituting more robust diversity initiatives.
Others, however, said that law enforcement searches of social media were inevitable, and the right course going forward was to work on crafting strong policies to make sure searches did not veer into violations of rights or privacy.
“It’s really kind of uncomfortable having Big Brother looking at social media, not knowing how far they’re going to go,” said Darnell Williams, president and CEO at the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. “I understand what they want to try to do. We just need to have more community dialogue to ensure that those firewalls are not breached.”
Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP, said her organization’s focus is on working with the department to help develop a comprehensive policy to guide police social media surveillance.
“Regardless of whether this particular program moves forward, we can’t ignore the use of social media tools by law enforcement,” she said.
Everyone wants safe communities, she said, and social media monitoring by police can help in that goal — but only if it is carefully balanced with respect for people’s rights, and with care that people of color are not disproportionately affected.
Sullivan called for public meetings and city council meetings to encourage open discussion.
The Rev. Mark V. Scott, associate pastor at Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester and co-chair of the Boston Police Social Justice Task Force, said he has been concerned about social media use among young people for a while. He recalled the aftermath of a recent murder, when young men who may have been responsible for the killing began posting pictures of themselves on Facebook with guns.
“What the street corners were in the ’80s, social media has become today,” Scott said. “Just like there is a need to respect people’s civil rights and privacy and yet still police the streets, there’s a need to watch and monitor what’s going on on social media.”
Campbell said she had spoken with the commissioner and suggested that if the department were to revisit the matter that the council would hold a public hearing similar to the public forums on police body cameras.
Campbell also suggested that the department consider making public requests for proposals, so that the community and city council are aware of department plans.
“I’m more than happy to play that role,” Campbell said. “. . . My commitment is to make sure the community is looped in.”