Boston City Council wants more transparency with police gang database

BOSTON — There are 101 active gangs with more than 2,650 suspected gang members operating in and around Boston, according to new numbers released by the Boston Regional Intelligence Center.

Those figures were released by BRIC Director David Carabin during a Boston City Council meeting in March.

Law enforcement officials argue the gang database is an important and necessary tool for investigating violent crime, but it’s the process for adding and removing suspected gang members that is drawing increased scrutiny from city leaders.

”I think the gang database is certainly a problem,” Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey said. “The data suggests that again, too many people end up on this list, they don’t know how they end up on this list, they’re not aware that they’re on this list.”

”There’s some real issues with how this operates,” Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said.

Arroyo, a former public defender, said the gang database unfairly targets people of color.

For instance, Black non-Hispanic people make up 25% of Boston’s demographics but made up 66% of the gang database, according to 2019 numbers released by Boston Police.

Arroyo said he also worries the database may include people who shouldn’t be included at all.

”I’ve actually had clients who have been in the past - who showed up as gang-affiliated that were not,” Arroyo said.

Boston Police launched the gang assessment database in 2004. Investigators use a 10-point system for identifying gang members and associates.

The database went largely unnoticed until 2017, when an East Boston High School student was deported after a Boston school police officer labeled him - incorrectly his lawyer said - as an MS-13 member.

”My client was not a gang member, nor did he ever say he was a gang member,” immigration attorney Sarah Sherman-Stokes said.

Sherman-Stokes said the teen had no criminal record or gang affiliation when he was added to Boston’s gang database in 2015. The student’s case eventually made it into the hands of federal investigators at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and he was deported back to his home country of El Salvador.

“It feels like this case brought an incredible amount of attention to all of the problems inherent in a gang database,” Sherman-Stokes said.

Carabin told city councilors there’s been at least one case of someone being incorrectly added to the gang database.

”I am aware of one instance,” Carabin told the Committee on Public Safety & Criminal Justice March 9. “When we did realize that person was not in the database accurately, we removed them,” he said.

According to an email from Boston Police spokesperson Sgt. Det. John Boyle: “The BRIC is aware of three individuals who have requested a review of their record in the gang assessment database. Following a review, one individual was removed, one was found to not be in the database at that time, and a third was found to have been accurately included in the database.”

Arroyo said that’s one of the biggest issues surrounding the gang database: if you’re mistakenly included in it, you would never know because its contents are not public record.

“It’s counterintuitive,” Arroyo said. “If I were on the gang database, I wouldn’t belong on there. But I’m not going to randomly send a letter to BPD to say, ‘Hey, am I possibly on the gang database and could you take me off?’ The affected class wouldn’t know to do that.”

Investigators argue the database is a proven and effective tool for fighting crime. According to Boston Police:

  • More than 40% of individuals arrested for firearm offenses in 2020 were in the gang database
  • 49% of shooting suspects arrested in 2020 were in the gang database
  • In the last five years, an average of 31% of shooting victims were in the gang database
  • More than 94% of individuals in the gang database have been arrested for a criminal offense in Boston
  • More than 98% of individuals in the gang database have a criminal history in or outside of Boston

“It’s important to make sure that we’ve got accurate information on individuals who are engaging in violence and disorder in our communities,” said Dan Linskey, a former superintendent-in-chief at the Boston Police Department.

Linskey at one time oversaw the BRIC and its gang database and said it wouldn’t be a bad idea to let suspected gang members know when they’re added to the list.

”Quite frankly, it might be beneficial if we told every gang member, ‘Just to let you know, we know what you’re up to.’ And there’s no anonymity should you find out. So maybe there’s an automatic process where we notify gang members they’ve been entered into the system,” Linskey said.

BOSTON POLICE DEPT. RESPONSE TO DATABASE CRITICISM:

Boston 25 News contacted Boston Police for comment. Spokesperson Sgt. Det. John Boyle provided a detailed response. Excerpts from that response are below:

  • “Like many other U.S. cities, the City of Boston has long been challenged by the impact of crime and social harm caused by violent street gangs, which typically manifests in the form of retaliatory violence and other illicit activities. As such, ensuring the Boston Police Department and its many public safety partners are best positioned to prevent, mitigate, investigate, and recover from gang-related criminal activity is a high priority for ensuring the overall safety of the public. The BPD’s Gang Assessment Database is an important tool that is utilized for this purpose.
  • “The Gang Assessment Database provides law enforcement a consistent citywide framework for identifying individuals and groups that associate as a gang and thus are likely to engage in or perpetrate criminal activity for the furtherance of the criminal organization, which may include targeted and/or retaliatory violence; and assist in the investigation of gang-related criminal activity in the City of Boston. It is used to enhance officer awareness, identify suspects, deploy resources, support investigations, and to aid in the prosecution of gang-related crimes.
  • “The database is constantly undergoing audits and record retention review processes. At a minimum, each entry in the Gang Assessment Database shall be reviewed at least once every five years to determine if the individual remains active based on the definitions provided in BPD Rule 335 (which is the BPD policy that governs the administration and use of the database). If the individual is no longer active, according to the definitions provided in the Rule, they will be purged.
  • “As of 5/5/21, the breakdown included the following:
    • Race:
      • 86.8% Black or African American
      • 13% White
      • 0.2% Asian
    • Ethnicity:
      • Hispanic or Latinx: 24%
      • Not Hispanic or Latinx: 74%
    • “NOTE: Please note the above Race/Ethnicity categories are taken from the data standard in the FBI National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). Please also note Race and Ethnicity data are not maintained in the BPD Gang Assessment Database. This data was queried based on the race/ethnicity given by an individual at their most recent booking in Boston. Not all individuals in the database have been arrested in Boston, therefore this data only represents a subset of individuals in the Gang Assessment Database. As of 5/5/21, 94% of individuals in the database had a prior Boston arrest.
  • “The City Council has stated that ‘Black and brown Bostonians are dramatically and disproportionately represented in the Gang Database.’ This statement needs to be put into context. According to an analysis of shooting data, shots fired data, firearms offender data, and U.S. Census data, one should note:
    • The geographic area most affected by incidents of firearm violence represents 7% of the city’s total land area and 21% of the city’s total population. This area accounts for approx. 72% of all shooting incidents and 75% of all confirmed shots fired incidents over the past five years.
    • According to an analysis of U.S.Census Data, this geographic area has the following demographic population:
      • Race:
        • 60% Black or African American
        • 17% White
        • 5% Asian
        • 5% Two or more races
        • 2% Some other race alone
      • Ethnicity:
        • 28% Hispanic or Latinx
        • 72% Not Hispanic or Latinx
    • According to victimology and crime statistics in this same geographic area:
      • Since 2016, Shootings Victim Demographics:
        • Race:
            • 83% Black or African American
            • 14% White
            • 1% Asian
            • 2% Unknown
        • Ethnicity:
          • 19% Hispanic or Latinx
          • 79% Not Hispanic or Latinx
          • 2% unknown
    • Arrests for Shootings in last 5 years:
        • Race:
          • 86% Black or African American
          • 14% White
        • Ethnicity:
          • 28% Hispanic or Latinx
          • 72% Non-Hispanic or Latinx
    • Gang Assessment Database victim, offender and criminal history statistics:
      • Approximately one half of one percent of the city’s population is represented in the GDB (compared to 5% of the population in Chicago, a total population of 2.7 million)
      • In 2020, over 40% of the individuals arrested for firearms offenses were in the GDB (185 people)
      • 49% of individuals arrested for shootings in 2020 were in the GDB
      • Over the last five years, an average of 31% of shootings victims were in Gang Database
      • Over 94% of the individuals in the GDB have been arrested for a criminal offense in Boston
      • Over 98% of the individuals in the GDB have a criminal history in or outside of Boston
  • “It is the BRIC’s analytic assessment that the majority of the firearms violence in Boston is driven by gang dynamics, with a small number of people causing a disproportionate amount of the violent incidents. The gang database is used to prevent and investigate these acts of violence, and reduce the risk of trauma in Boston neighborhoods. Analysis of the demographic data associated with crime victims, firearm offense arrests, and the most consistently impacted geographic area shows a strong correlation with the demographics of the gang database. Furthermore, analysis of crime victim data, criminal offender data, and criminal history data shows that the gang database is in fact populated with individuals that have committed criminal offenses and are more susceptible to being victimized by and/or perpetrate firearms violence. It is our perspective that the database is not racially or ethnically biased; but rather, it specifically includes those engaged in gang-related criminal activities, regardless of race and ethnicity, which plays no role in the database or in the BRIC’s analysis of gang-related behavior.”

WHO HAS ACCESS TO THE DATABASE ACCORDING TO BPD:

“A very limited set of selected officers from the following entities have access to the gang database:

  • Massachusetts State Police (assigned to BPD YVSF)
  • MBTA Transit Police
  • Boston School Police
  • Boston Housing Authority Police
  • Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department (assigned to the BPD Special Investigations Unit)

“Lawyers and judges do not have direct access to the Gang Assessment Database. ICE, DCF and the RMV do not have direct access. Gang Assessment Database information is not shared with DCF or RMV. In accordance with the City of Boston Trust Act, BPD can share information with the Homeland Security Investigations Division to support criminal investigation matters. NO information can be shared with ICE for purposes of the enforcement of civil violations of U.S. immigration laws.

“Gang Database information would not be released in civil proceedings, like family court hearings or applications for loans and subsidized housing, absent a judicially authorized subpoena or other Court Order.

“Gang Database information is not released to non-law enforcement entities subject to requests for employment background checks or licensing background checks. In the context of bail and parole hearings, Gang Database information is typically only used if the crime for which the individual is charged has a specific gang nexus. Lastly, pursuant to the City of Boston Trust Act, Gang Database records are not released for the purposes of civil immigration enforcement.”