A lawsuit filed in Suffolk Superior Court Wednesday accuses the Boston Police Department of monitoring local activists and sharing intelligence with federal officials. The suit seeks dossiers allegedly compiled about local protesters.
Susan Barney is a longtime activist living in Arlington. She was arrested by Boston Police in 2009 after protesting inside the Israeli Consulate against an Israeli offensive in Gaza.
She had been arrested before for similar acts. But this occasion was different. For the first time, the police interrogated her.
"They asked me questions like, 'Who organized this? What are their names? What groups do you work with?' " she said in a telephone interview.
Barney didn't answer. She said the four officers wore plain clothes, and one of them worked for the Department of Homeland Security. Barney said they called her a "baby" for not talking. Then they said something that alarmed her even more.
"One of them said to me, in a sort of joking manner, 'I'm sure you recognize us. We've been at all your protests,' " she said.
She looked at their faces and didn't recognize them. But since then, she has recognized her interrogators at other protests, where they watched from across the street. She and her fellow protesters believe the police have compiled files on them, and they've tried to get those files, to no avail. That's why they're taking the department to court.
"We don't know who they're keeping files on. We don't know how far this surveillance goes," said Laura Rotolo, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. "But we do know that the system is big and it's happening really behind closed doors."
Rotolo brought the lawsuit on behalf of Barney and the other Israeli Consulate protesters. Five activist organizations are also plaintiffs. Most of the groups organize against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The purpose of this lawsuit really is to shine a light on what has become this huge surveillance system that our taxpayer dollars are paying for and affects everyone here in Boston," Rotolo said.
The Boston Police Department would not comment on the lawsuit. Like many local police departments after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the department built up its intelligence operations. In 2005, Boston created the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC. According to the BPD website, police, FBI and Homeland Security officials at the BRIC analyze intelligence to fight crime and prevent terrorism. Last year, the BRIC joined a pilot initiative requiring them to send reports on suspicious activity to the FBI.
Because so little is known about the scope of surveillance at the BRIC, this lawsuit aims to find out what counts as "suspicious activity," and whether Boston police are watching and reporting on political activists.
This program aired on August 18, 2011.