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Boston Regional Intelligence Center receives additional funding despite concerns about over policing communities of color

A vote to receive federal funding for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center was passed by city council last Wednesday, despite concerns raised by civilian justice organizations and councilors that the surveillance effort disproportionately monitors people of color.

Boston Police station in Government Center
Boston Police station in Government Center. Despite concerns, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center will now receive federal funding. MOLLY POTTER/DFP FILE

Nearly half of the city council voted no on the increase in funding. 

BRIC was established in 2005, serving as a center to collect surveillance data on citizens within the Greater Boston area to then share with multiple law enforcement agencies in order to prevent acts of terrorism. It has since shifted its focus to pinpointing “areas of crime, shootings and gang violence,” and collecting that data in what’s known as the “gang database,” according to the Boston Police Department’s website. 

In recent years, BRIC has received approximately $7 to 8 million a year in funding from sources such as the Boston Police Department, state budget, Department of Homeland Security and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, according to research conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union Massachusetts. 

Last week’s city council vote expanded BRIC’s funding by providing an additional $3.4 million in state funds. 

Fatema Ahmad, executive director of Muslim Justice League — an organization that focuses on bringing justice for communities who have been impacted by surveillance and policing — said this increase in funding is going to affect people of color the most.

“This is going to impact Black and brown people, Muslim folks [and] immigrant folks more,” Ahmad said. “It’s just going to exponentially increase the policing of those communities.”

A January 2022 ruling from the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals stated that the database had flaws, specifically that its reliance on “an erratic point system built on unsubstantiated inferences” lacks credibility.

The gang database utilizes a point-based system where law enforcement officials subjectively determine the number of points an individual receives on their profile and if they reach a certain amount of points, they are surveilled, according to the ACLU.

Leon Smith, executive director for Citizens for Juvenile Justice, said the gang database involves both surveillance and a record keeping of residents and juveniles. The database collects that information without informing them, according to Smith.

“Having that label leads to significantly worse outcomes for young people,” Smith said. “If you go into a juvenile court, an adult criminal court or especially in immigration court, that label can lead to significantly worse and more harsh outcomes for you.” 

One of the concerns Smith had about the database was that the criteria required for being put into the database was “flimsy.” Smith said that 50% of the points assigned to people in the gang database was based on if someone had been stopped by police and questioned, even if you were not arrested.

“If you live in a part of Boston, where more people are simply stopped and questioned … people in that neighborhood are going to be more likely to be included in the gang database,” Smith said. “Which is how we see such extreme racial disparities in who was included in the gang database.” 

In her statements before the vote, Councilor At-Large Ruthzee Louijeune said BRIC uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative data in order to determine which residents to collect data on.

“Qualitative data is not factual. Qualitative data is based on bias and often implicit bias, which is a problem which also relates to the demographic makeup of the BRIC,” Louijeune said. “We need to make sure we have checks and balances, and without checks and balances we risk that the BRIC will again overstep its mandate and infringe upon civil liberties and that’s too great.”

In 2016, the ACLU obtained documents detailing that BRIC used social media surveillance to monitor basic Arabic words or hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter to seek out people that may have associations with crime.

“Most people who have used that hashtag are not suspected of a crime,” Ahmad said. “BRIC is going far beyond just collecting information on people who might be suspicious. … We have Muslims who are concerned about being political online or at protests … we have Black and brown young men who are saying that the police harass them regularly and they’re asking ‘How do they know my name?’”

Before the vote in city council, Councilor Brian Worrell of District 4 said the database had been proven to be discriminatory to the Black and brown community that makes up a majority of his constituency.

“I can’t, in good conscience, support this increase in funding for the BRIC unit today,” Worrell said. “The BRIC has been called out by the federal courts, sued by the state attorney general [and] in some corners its effectiveness to fight crime has been called into question.”

In 2021, then-City Councilor Michelle Wu voted against additional funding for BRIC. Last Wednesday, now-Mayor Wu was the sponsor of the vote, stating that the reason she switched her stance was due to “several policy and leadership changes” that were implemented to BRIC.

“It’s clearly really frustrating to many community members who believed that her stances on these issues were genuine, and that she would actually take this seriously,” Ahmad said. “She’s now essentially saying because she’s there and there’s a new commissioner … that somehow now it’s magically better.”

Several city councilors, in their statements before the vote, acknowledged the potential for BRIC to contribute to racial disparities but said they had believed the Boston police commissioner would institute reforms to curb this effect.

“I don’t believe something that’s as racially biased to such a degree as the BRIC is, can simply be moderated by the good intentions of one actor like the chief of police,” Smith said. “When we look at research on overall policing practices, there’s this belief that simply diversifying a police force will somehow lead to greater equity and that’s not really what research bears out.”

Ahmad said communities of color have historically been targeted by police surveillance and no reform can change the fact that law enforcement is conducting mass surveillance.

“There is no version of these things that won’t be discriminatory,” Ahmad said. “The idea that it could be reformed when the whole purpose of it is to collect information on people who are not suspected of doing anything is really just absurd.”

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