The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts lashed back at Boston Police Commissioner William Gross on Sunday, after he took the unusual step of wading into a legal controversy.
In a statement posted privately on Facebook just before 3 p.m. Saturday, Boston’s top law enforcement official attacked the ACLU for, in his view, failing to support police or better the local community and instead “hiding and waiting for a slow news day to justify their existence.”
The ACLU chapter is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Nov. 15 in Suffolk Superior Court that seeks to force Boston police to release information about the department’s practice of labeling young men and teenagers from Central America as gang members — allegedly with often flimsy evidence — and sharing that data with federal immigration officials.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has used information from the department in efforts to have alleged gang members deported, despite previous declarations by Mayor Martin J. Walsh that Boston is a sanctuary city for unauthorized immigrants.
A spokeswoman for Walsh declined to comment Sunday on Gross’s remarks.
In a statement Sunday, Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, accused Boston police of failing to comply with the state public records law and said Gross was trying “to divert attention from the serious issues raised by an ACLU lawsuit” regarding the department’s treatment of immigrants and people of color.
“In order to make Boston a safe city for all its residents, we must meaningfully address discriminatory policing, and confront the role the gang database plays in the lives of young Black and Latinx people in our city,” Rose said in the statement.
Boston police made no statement on the lawsuit when it was filed, citing a policy against discussing active litigation.
On Sunday, a department spokesman also declined to speak about Gross’s posting.
“The police commissioner shared his opinions on his personal Facebook page,” said Sergeant Detective John Boyle, the spokesman. “At this time, the department will not comment on the post.”
In Gross’s post the commissioner took the ACLU to task for not participating in a trip Gross took to El Salvador to learn about the MS-13 gang, for not being involved in the department’s anticrime programs, and for not offering support when officers are wounded or killed in the line of duty.
“NO ACLU when Officers are shot, No ACLU when we help citizens, no ACLU present when we have to explain to a mother that her son or daughter was horribly murdered by gang violence,” Gross wrote.
Gross also thanked the “98 percent of the people in Boston that are doing the right thing and are helping out others” and said police will “continue to do our job” despite the ACLU’s “paper warriors.”
The post was visible to Gross’s Facebook friends, which number in the thousands and include journalists.
After the Boston Herald reported Saturday on Gross’s post, he included a follow-up comment on Facebook, saying in part, “I hope I have the CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT to comment on my private FB page where you have to be invited into as friends only.”
Howard Friedman, a longtime Boston civil rights attorney unconnected to the ACLU lawsuit, said Gross’s posting was unlikely to affect the case because the commissioner didn’t directly address its central issue, but it was unwise to air his complaints in a public forum.
“It’s the sort of thing that, if one writes it, one should not post it. It shows a hypersensitivity to criticism, a misunderstanding of the role of the ACLU,” Friedman said.
Friedman said police officials elsewhere have been disciplined and even fired for inappropriate social media postings, and lashing back at critics isn’t productive.
“He should be looking at criticism from whatever source to see whether there might be any truth, and what I don’t see here is any introspection,” he said.
Two Boston city councilors, though, said that although the lawsuit raises important questions, they also support Gross’s right to express his feelings.
The focus on his post, Councilor Lydia Edwards said, misses the larger point: “How are we being watched; what are we allowing as a society in the name of safety?”
“That’s what I think this lawsuit is trying to figure out,” Edwards added later. “It’s got nothing to do with how amazing, how hard-working [Boston police are], what the police officers are willing to sacrifice their lives for. This is not a criticism of that dedication.”
Edwards said that at a City Council hearing earlier this year, Gross pledged to work with councilors to address concerns about the gang database.
Gross’s job, Councilor Annissa Essaibi George said, sometimes forces him to “walk a fine line” between protecting civil rights and protecting the public from crime. His willingness to speak his mind was part of the reason he was made commissioner, she said.
“He is a very no-nonsense [person], not participating in the political games,” Essaibi George said. “He is very honest, very upfront. . . . That is one of the things we should acknowledge and celebrate.”