The City of Boston today voted to pass an ordinance that will require community control over police surveillance (CCOPS). Boston now joins over 20 other municipalities nationwide—including Cambridge, Lawrence, and Somerville in Massachusetts—with CCOPS laws that empower local communities to influence surveillance and information sharing decisions.
“We applaud the Boston City Council for passing an ordinance that will empower residents and their elected officials to decide if and how surveillance technologies are used here,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Far too often, police departments obtain invasive, costly surveillance equipment in secret and without any oversight. This ordinance flips that script, ensuring local residents remain in control of their own communities.”
The surveillance oversight ordinance establishes a transparent, democratic process ensuring that Boston police cannot acquire new surveillance technologies without community buy-in. Sponsored by Boston City Councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Michelle Wu, the ordinance mandates that surveillance technologies cannot be funded, acquired, or used without express City Council approval. City departments seeking to use a previously-acquired surveillance technology in a new way must also receive City Council approval of the new use.
“Surveillance in Boston, like policing itself, disproportionately targets Black and brown people,” said Kade Crockford, Technology for Liberty program director at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “With CCOPS laws, concerned residents and community organizations now have a meaningful chance to debate and push back against the deployment of surveillance technologies in their neighborhoods. For years, we have been subject to surveillance policy-making that occurs in secret, behind closed doors, without any democratic engagement or public debate. We are thrilled to enter a new chapter in Boston’s democracy, and grateful to Councilor Arroyo and Councilor Wu for their leadership.”
Surveillance technologies subject to City Council control per the new ordinance include automatic license plate readers, video surveillance, social media monitoring software, predictive policing software, and more. The City of Boston banned face surveillance technology in June 2020.
"The residents of Boston deserve a transparent process that fosters accountability when it comes to how we are policed and surveilled,” said District 5 Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo. “Balancing public safety and our civil rights can be done and this furthers both of those goals. Additionally, it creates protections that serve to begin the work of dismantling the school to prison, and school to deportation, pipelines. Ensuring children in our schools can focus on learning without the fear of the destabilizing impact those issues can cause to their lives. This ordinance was done in collaboration and partnership with the administration, our Boston Public Schools, Boston Police Department, and social justice advocates and I am proud of the final product.”
“We need clear safeguards in place to ensure that the surveillance technologies used by the City are deployed with transparency, public accountability, and democratic oversight,” said At-Large Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu. “I'm grateful to the advocates and residents who have pushed for more than three years to secure these protections for privacy, civil liberties, and racial and immigrant justice, and I look forward to partnering with them and with City departments to ensure that the use of future technologies builds trust and protects our communities while advancing our shared goals.”
The ordinance also includes a section prohibiting Boston Public Schools officials from sharing information about students with the Boston Police Department, except in true emergencies. This section of the law, the first-of-its-kind nationwide, was developed in response to reports that Boston Public Schools police shared information with the Boston Police Department, which shared it with federal immigration authorities, leading to the deportation of a Boston student.
“As youth, immigrants, and community members, the Student Immigrant Movement is proud to see the commitment to transparency and privacy lead to this pivotal moment in Boston,” said Sabrina Barroso, lead organizer with Student Immigrant Movement. “In past hearings and working sessions, our members have shown up to express their concerns and worries about surveillance and information sharing in their schools and the city at large. We are hopeful that our community’s stories, values, and persistence have demonstrated the need for a new framework based on consent and honesty to address the city’s current surveillance practices. It’s time to take a step forward for youth to learn without fear, for families’ privacy to be respected, and for the community to have control over city structures that impact all of us.”
“In the past, the lack of policies and oversight have led to the criminalization of students for typical teenage behavior,” said Nora Paul-Schultz, a Boston Public Schools physics teacher and co-chair of Boston Teachers Union Unafraid Educators. “Doing so has had devastating consequences for those young people and their families. I am hopeful that this ordinance will provide significant guardrails that will better protect our students from being criminalized in our schools.”
In September 2016, the ACLU launched a nationwide effort to pass CCOPS laws that ensure residents, through their city council representatives, are empowered to decide if and how surveillance technologies are used. Boston marks the 22nd CCOPS laws passed; as a result, nearly 18 million residents—along with countless visitors and undocumented people—now have a meaningful say over the use of intrusive surveillance technologies in their communities.