DETAILS OVER THE inner workings of the Boston Police Department are not the usual focus of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. But after watching a two-year standoff over whether the department should accept millions of dollars in grant funding from the state, the group’s president, Jim Rooney, is stepping into an issue that has been mired in controversy over charges of racial profiling and civil rights violations.
The Boston City Council will consider again today whether to accept some $3.4 million in state grant funding for the Boston Police Department’s intelligence center. Signing off on grant funding for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC, has been held up by the council since 2021 over concerns that a gang database it operates has improperly targeted hundreds of young Black and Latino residents.
Mayor Michelle Wu – who voted against accepting the grant money two years ago when she served on the council – says the major concerns she and others voiced at the time have been addressed, and she is urging the council, which must approve all grants to the city, to approve the funding. Now joining her in that call is Rooney, who says the money is crucial to the police department’s ability to address growing public safety concerns among business leaders as well as neighborhood residents.
“The conversation and the public debate has been one dimensional up to this point,” Rooney said of the focus on the gang database.
Rooney said he is not dismissing the concerns that have been raised about the gang database. “We do need to be mindful of civil liberties and the behaviors of law enforcement that shouldn’t be taking place. No one is signing up for that,” he said. But Rooney said he feels assured that problems that existed with the database have been dealt with, and he said it’s vital to consider the broader public safety work handled by the BRIC, including gathering intelligence on potential domestic terror threats.
He pointed to a 2015 case, when intelligence gathering by the BRIC led police to arrest two Iowa men who arrived in Boston with firearms after making online threats to a Pokeman championship event being held at the Hynes Convention Center. “When they pulled up in front of the Hynes from Iowa, they were arrested,” Rooney said. “And they had the ammunition to go with their threats.”
Rooney said the BRIC can also be vital in disrupting plans for disturbances organized through social media such as recent melees that have broken out downtown and at the South Bay shopping center.
In a letter submitted to the City Council, Rooney said community leaders have warned that public safety issues are at “a crisis point.” He said using the grant money “for appropriate and necessary technology utilized for anti-crime and emergency response will help address the violence in all of Boston’s neighborhoods.”
In a letter of her own sent to all city councilors yesterday in advance of today’s meeting, Wu urged them to approve the grants, which she said will be vital to efforts to “reduce gun violence and other types of crime within our neighborhoods.”
She recounted the concerns that led her to vote against accepting the funds two years ago, saying they were centered on “management of the gang assessment database and how surveillance was being used to further a school-to-deportation or school-to-prison pipeline.”
But Wu ticked off a list of reforms adopted since then, including a new city ordinance and state law providing more oversight of police and an overhaul of the gang assessment database protocol that has led to the removal of nearly 2,500 names from the roster since 2021.
She said the administration submitted the grants for approval by the council “only after setting a solid foundation for accountability,” and encouraged councilors to schedule visits to BRIC to gain a first-hand look at its workings.
City Councilor Julia Mejia said she continues to have concerns about the gang database, and a “lack of understanding” of what the BRIC staffing looks like, saying she wants to know how many people of color work at the center. The grant money would fund the hiring of eight new analysts in the intelligence center.
Rooney said continued delays in getting the grant money approved are hampering efforts to keep crime problems in Boston from spiraling to the levels seen in other cities. Over the past 19 months, he said, police were called 150 times to the Macy’s store in Downtown Crossing for reports of “disturbances, threats, and acts of violence.” He said public safety concerns are only adding to the challenge of getting workers back to offices in Boston, something that is vital to the city’s economy.
Rooney said it has been “frustrating that some members of the council are not prepared to embrace the funding and work with the police department on their areas of concern as opposed to obstructing their ability to move forward.”