ACLU Sues Boston Police For Access To Gang Database

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Boston Police Department headquarters in 2018. (Joe Difazio for WBUR.)
Boston Police Department headquarters in 2018. (Joe Difazio for WBUR.)

The ACLU of Massachusetts wants access to the Boston Police Department's gang database and it's suing the department to get it.

The civil rights group says increasingly, allegations of gang involvement are being used against Central American youth in immigration court, and there's no way to gauge the accuracy of the gang database without getting a look inside the system.

Along with more than a dozen other community groups, the ACLU six months ago asked Boston police for access to the gang database. Since then, the groups say, they've received incomplete information. The lawsuit filed Thursday in Suffolk Superior Court seeks access to the remaining documents.

The organizations say the point was never to see names or personal information of individuals in the database. Instead, the groups want to know the demographic background of people in the system — things like race, age, local ZIP code and nationality.

Adriana Lafaille, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts, says the group found a troubling trend around the gang database and how it's being used by federal immigration officials.

"We have been hearing for a while from immigration attorneys about the consequence of gang allegations for their clients and the use of gang allegations in the immigration court," Lafaille said.

These complaints from immigration attorneys prompted the public records request back in May. She says the government commonly uses the gang label against a young person in immigration court to keep them in detention. That practice, she says, is intensifying as more families and young people flee ongoing violence in Central American countries.

"It's especially troubling that we use this gang database system to deny them the very protection that they seek," Lafaille said, "to label them as gang members themselves and ultimately, to detain and try to remove them from the United States."

10 Points: Gang Member

According to a 2014 criminal justice report, Boston police use a point system to determine a person's gang involvement: two points for being seen with an alleged gang member, four points for flashing a hand gesture that's believed to be a gang sign. Racking up 10 points can lead to the label of gang member.

The ACLU says individuals are not notified when they're added to the gang database.

For Orlando, a young man from El Salvador and a former student at East Boston High School, it wasn't until a government attorney presented a school incident report in immigration court that he and his lawyer learned he'd been labeled an associate of the gang MS-13.

Sarah Sherman-Stokes is a clinical teaching fellow at Boston University's School of Law and represented Orlando. We're only using his middle name because he has since been deported to El Salvador and fears for his safety there.

"The introduction of this incident report really set off a chain of events for my client that were devastating," Sherman-Stokes said.

She questions why a school incident report ended up in the hands of federal agents. After accessing the report, she believes, the government identified pictures of Orlando on social media wearing a blue soccer jersey to support its claim of gang membership. Sherman-Stokes believes Orlando was ultimately denied asylum because of the gang label.

"It was pretty shocking, and perhaps even more shocking, that it was compelling to an immigration judge in finding that the client was in fact a gang affiliate, or a gang member, and should be deported on that basis," she said.

In The Interest Of Public Safety

The gang database is maintained by the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC). It's a data analysis unit at the police department accessible to state and federal law enforcement agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. BRIC keeps tabs on gang threats, drug activity and potential terrorism.

Boston Police argue the department is exempt from turning over certain information like the number of people in the system; how gang members are identified and guidance given to school resource officers.

Sergeant Detective John Boyle declined to provide further information, saying the department does not comment on active litigation.

Lafaille, the ACLU attorney, says the group wants a chance to look inside the gang database system to gauge how people end up on the list, and whether the database has made meaningful contributions to public safety.

This segment aired on November 15, 2018.


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Shannon Dooling Investigative Reporter
Shannon Dooling was an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.



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