City Council to hold hearing on surveillance tech purchased with hidden pot of money

A Boston City Council committee focused on government accountability will hold a hearing to review the Boston police's purchase of controversial spy technology.

Several councilors pushed for the hearing, which is expected to happen within the next several months, following a WBUR and ProPublica investigation that revealed the surveillance equipment was bought with a hidden pot of money that shielded the purchase from council oversight.

"Our hope is that we can use this hearing to ensure that we are putting a spotlight on any hidden pot of money, especially money being used without our consent," Councilor Julia Mejia, who co-sponsored the order calling for the hearing, said at Wednesday's council meeting.

In 2019, Boston police paid $627,000 for cell site simulator equipment and training, according to invoices obtained by WBUR in a public records request. The technology tracks cell phone location and use. Boston police say it's used to locate missing people and in criminal investigations, but critics say the warrantless use of the equipment, also known as a "stingray," threatens constitutional rights.

Several city councilors interviewed said they were not aware Boston police bought this technology until WBUR and ProPublica's investigation showed the equipment was paid for with proceeds of civil forfeitures. These funds, accumulated in connection with alleged crimes, are largely spent at the discretion of police chiefs and do not require approval by the city council.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who also sponsored the hearing order, said Wednesday that learning more about the purchase is about upholding the council's role as an oversight body.

"I do believe that protecting civil liberties and protecting our communities are not mutually exclusive and doing so is dependent on our ability to ensure transparency and accountability," Arroyo said.

Representatives from the Boston Police Department will be invited to testify at the hearing which will be before the committee on government accountability, transparency and accessibility.


Headshot of Shannon Dooling

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



More from WBUR

Listen Live