AFTER REJECTING state funding for a Boston police intelligence unit multiple times over the past two years because of concerns that a gang database it maintains has racially profiled Black and Latino residents, the Boston City Council voted on Wednesday to accept the funding.
In a 7-5 vote that broke along racial lines, the council voted to accept $3.4 million in funding for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC. The center gathers information on a wide range of public safety threats ranging from terrorism to street gangs. But it is the gang database it oversees that has made the unit the focus of controversy.
Mayor Michelle Wu, who voted against accepting the grant money two years ago while serving on the council, urged the council to approve the funding, arguing that the police department has instituted new safeguards against improperly assigning people to the gang database.
Many of the seven white councilors who voted to approve the funds acknowledged past problems with the gang database, but echoed Wu’s argument that the police department has made changes in response to the criticism.
“We know there’ve been flaws in the past,” said City Councilor Michael Flaherty, chair of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee. “This is an opportunity to be collaborative,” he said, encouraging councilors to approve the funding and work with police leaders if further reforms are called for.
Problems with the database were identified in a federal case last year, when an appeals court panel of judges ruled that the system used an “erratic points system based on unsubstantiated inferences” to improperly identify a Salvadoran immigrant as a member of the brutal MS-13 gang. Attorney General Andrea Campbell is overseeing a probe of the gang database over allegations of racial discrimination, an investigation that was launched under her predecessor, Maura Healey, before she was elected governor.
In a letter sent yesterday to city councilors, Wu said there have been “several consequential policy and leadership changes” that mean “the BRIC and police department operate in a significantly different environment today.”
She pointed to a new city ordinance and state law that provide for more police transparency and accountability, and said new regulations governing the gang database have led to almost 2,500 names being removed from the database since 2021. Wu also cited the appointment last year of Michael Cox as police commissioner, and the naming in July of this year of Superintendent Luis Cruz to head the bureau that oversees the BRIC.
City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, one of the five councilors of color who voted against accepting the grants, said she still has questions about the gang database. “Without more review, there is no mechanism to hold the BRIC accountable for mistakes,” she said.
City Councilor Kendra Lara, who also voted against accepting the grant funding, said the city should be looking to eliminate the gang database altogether, not just make changes to it. “We are moving backwards on police reform,” she said.
City Councilor Gabriela Coletta said the criticisms of past practices involving the gang database are valid, and she said the administration has agreed to biannual hearings going forward to review operations of the BRIC. But she said it’s also important to recognize that intelligence gathering from the center “has stopped hate crimes, murders, sexual assaults, kidnappings, and attacks on our LGBTQ neighbors, our Jewish neighbors, and helped to inform police to make data-informed arrests.”
Wu hailed the vote, saying in a statement that “the BRIC plays a critical role in providing the intelligence and analysis” needed to “build trust and safety through data-informed, community driven-strategies.”
Voting in favor of accepting the grants along with Flaherty and Coletta were city councilors Frank Baker, Liz Breadon, Sharon Durkan, Ed Flynn, and Erin Murphy. Voting against accepting the grants with Louijeune and Lara were city councilors Ricardo Arroyo, Julia Mejia, and Brian Worrell.
In a separate vote, the council voted 12-0 to accept a $1 million state grant for the BRIC to bolster the police department’s capability to detect radioactive materials.