Council Host Hearing on Police Surveillance & Technology

Community members and advocates filled the city council chamber at City Hall on June 19  to voice concerns and ask questions at a hearing regarding the usage of police surveillance in the city of Boston.

District 5 councilor Timothy McCarthy chaired the hearing, which was co-sponsored by Councilor At-Large Michelle Wu and Council President Andrea Campbell from District 4.  The hearing had also been pushed for by #BosCops, a coalition of several local advocacy groups concerned with the surveillance tactics and technology Boston law enforcement has employed and, in particular, their effects in minority working class communities.  

The Boston Police Department was represented in the first panel by Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross and Chief of Bureau of Administration and Technology John Daley.

Assistant Chief of Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) David Carabin, who was also part of the first panel, opened with his own testimony to define and clarify what his organization does.  

“BRIC serves as the city’s and region’s central point for collection synthesis, analysis, and dissemination to police and priority security partners” Carrabin explained. “Furthermore, the BRIC is a resource that supports the city’s public safety responsibilities by sustaining a trusted network for which information can be collected, maintained, and shared in a manner that protects our communities and the privacy civil rights and civil liberties of our citizens.” BRIC is one of 72 fusion centers formed across the nation in response to 9/11.

The first panel yielded questions from council members regarding the policies in place by Boston law enforcement regarding the efficiency and the transparency of their use of surveillance technology.

In response to a question of citizen consent and direct approval from the City Council of any surveillance local law enforcement enacts, Gross expressed his willingness to have those discussions, stating, “Our city has been attacked twice and we always want to be ahead of the game. Anything that ensures the safety of the citizens, we are willing to have that conversation.”

“We don’t want to make any purchases where anyone thinks we trying to sneak in technology, to be to intrusive,” continued Gross. “We are all keenly aware of George Orwell, ‘Big Brother is watching’, and we don’t want to be that type of brother.”

After the council members finished their questions for the panel, the three gathered their belongings and left the Chamber, much to the disapproval of those in attendance that had yet to speak.

Upon exiting the Chamber, Superintendent-in-Chief Gross told Spare Change News “This is just the beginning, we need to have more talks, and I’m glad that everyone is here to voice their opinions, so we can educate people about what’s going on.”

Gross finished by stating, “we have to address these conversations, you have to talk to the people” before being confronted by upset advocates who demanded to know why the officers were leaving the hearing so early.

Criticism also came from within the Chamber during the second panel, comprised of representatives from local advocacy groups and members of the community.

“Generally in the city of Boston, a thing we see a lot at hearings like this is that the police come and they speak and they talk about how much they care about the community and the community voices and then they leave before they have a chance to listen to what the community had to say,” Kate Crockford of the ACLU said to council members. “I just find that really troubling.”

My’Kel McMillen, who also sat on the second panel, told Spare Change that the actions of the police representatives isn’t anything new. “These conversations are very constructive, especially with [councilor] Michelle Wu doing this hearing,” McMillen said. “More so, from the police standpoint, I feel they were very stagnant with their answers, we really didn’t get the answers we wanted to hear.” McMillen was chosen to sit on the panel after he accused BPD of flying surveillance drones in Jamaica Plain without informing residents.

“Ultimately, this is not a debate about being for or against innovation. It’s facilitating the innovation that city residents want and most need,” concluded panelist Ben Green of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center of Internet and Society. “After all, being a smart city means more than just using technology wherever possible, it means being smart about accomplishing our policy goals with the aid of technology but without violating public rights.”