The ACLU of Massachusetts, together with a coalition of legal services and civil rights groups, today filed a lawsuit against the Boston Police Department (BPD) seeking information about the police department’s “gang database.”
Little is known about the BPD’s system of labeling, tracking, and sharing information about young people it alleges to be involved in gangs. Being labeled as a gang member can have catastrophic consequences for a young person’s life, including being targeted for surveillance and police stops, facing harsher outcomes in the criminal legal system, and – for noncitizen youth – being detained and deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“In Boston, we call our city a sanctuary for immigrants, but behind the scenes, under cover of secrecy, local law enforcement profiling systems allow young people to be targeted and deported – even when they haven’t been suspected of engaging in criminal activity,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “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 people of color in our city. We hope this public records lawsuit is just the first step towards aligning the intelligence practices of the Boston Police Department with the City’s stated commitment to fight racism and protect immigrant communities.”
According to the lawsuit, the public has a right to know basic information about how the Boston Police Department uses the system, including information related to the demographics of the people alleged to be gang members; its accuracy and effectiveness at lowering violent crime rates; whether and how people designated as gang members may challenge their inclusion in the database; and ICE access to gang allegations made by Boston Police or Boston Public Schools employees.
The BPD uses a point system to determine whether to include someone in its “Gang Assessment Database.” The point system makes it possible to designate “gang affiliation” without any allegation of violence or criminal activity. For example, one youth who is currently detained accumulated “points” based entirely on instances in which BPD or school police reported that he was with other young people who they allege to be gang members. He was detained, despite a pending application for lawful status and even though he had never been arrested or charged with any crime or juvenile offense. Another currently detained youth accumulated his points by being the victim of an assault in school, and because he was seen leaving school and hanging out with other youth who are alleged to be gang members.
“For years, these databases have been used to make secret determinations about young people of color, even though little is known about how the database system works or who is profiled by it,” said Adriana Lafaille, an attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “All too often, we’ve seen the consequences of these secretive designations in immigration court, where it’s often too late for young people to stand up for themselves against false allegations of gang membership. We are suing to obtain this information because Boston must engage in a long-deferred conversation about the discriminatory role gang databases play in policing, and we look forward to obtaining the information we seek towards that end.”
The ACLU and 14 other groups originally filed a public records request under the Massachusetts public records law on May 21, 2018. Since then, BPD, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), and the City of Boston have failed to provide an adequate response.
“The Boston Police Department and BRIC, as most law enforcement agencies, have assumed almost unlimited powers to monitor and label members of our society,” said Urszula Masny-Latos, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, Massachusetts Chapter, one of the groups that has filed suit. “The consequences of this monitoring and labeling could be catastrophic on people's pursuance of education, employment, or even housing. Thus, the monitoring and labeling need to stop.”