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Report says Boston police are ‘spying’ on lawful activists

The report by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild says that Boston police spy on and record law-abiding activist groups.

Boston police and the Boston Regional Intelligence Center routinely "spy" on individuals engaged in protected speech and political activity, according to a report set to be released today.

The report titled "Policing Dissent: Police Surveillance of Lawful Political Activity in Boston" was the result of documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the National Lawyers Guild Massachusetts Chapter. The groups sued for the records and surveillance videos on behalf of activists and groups including Veterans for Peace, CodePink, Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights and United for Justice with Peace.

According to the report, events and demonstrators are actively monitored and videotaped by officers who then retain the footage and write intelligence reports on peaceful protesters and demonstrations where no criminal activity or only civil disobedience occur. Nine of the 13 reports obtained by the civil liberties groups mention only political activity and never mention criminal or potentially criminal activity. The reports are given labels such as "Extremist," "Civil Disturbance" or "HomSec-Domestic."

The Boston Police Department said in a statement yesterday that it "holds itself to
the highest standards and practices in our intelligence gathering" and "does not maintain continued surveillance or documentation on peace protest groups."

One intelligence report ahead of a 2010 Tea Party rally on the Boston Common that featured former Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin discussed how police monitor social media sites like Facebook. The information police monitored on Facebook centered around individuals who planned to attend and who were from a group that is redacted in the report.

That report that was obtained by the ACLU and NLG can be read below:






Another report obtained by the ACLU and NLG about a 2008 demonstration at Park Street station by the group United for Justice with Peace showed that the activity was monitored by police and can be read below:






Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU Massachusetts, said she wasn’t surprised that the surveillance was going on, but that it involved protected political speech and showed no nexus to any criminal activity.

"Massachusetts residents shouldn't have to rely on the ACLU or NLG to enforce compliance with police privacy rules," she said. "It's time for the legislature to pass privacy laws. We need to require independent oversight … at BPD."

The ACLU and NLG wrote a letter to police Commissioner Ed Davis dated Tuesday that requested a meeting, but Rose said last night she has not heard back.

The Boston Police Department in a statement released yesterday acknowledged that in 2011 it found an error in computer software that retained 11 intelligence reports that should have been purged from the department’s database. The system has since been updated, it said.

The entire Boston Police Department statement read:

"The Boston Police Department in conjunction with the City of Boston Law Department is reviewing the letter sent by the ACLU.

This statement is not intended as a direct response to all of the issues mentioned in the letter but does address some more immediate misconceptions.

The Boston Police Department holds itself to the highest standards and practices in our intelligence gathering. Our guidelines are based on the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit (LIEU) Criminal Intelligence File Guidelines; which are the national standard. The Bureau of Intelligence and Analysis plays a vital role in crime prevention and public safety.

The Bureau’s Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) is the unit where criminal intelligence information is gathered by the Department. Criminal intelligence is not limited to terrorism or homeland security. The BRIC has specific systems in place to protect the privacy of individuals and groups. Absent an articulable, reasonable suspicion of actual, or attempted planning, organizing, financing or commission of criminal activity the BRIC does not gather or retain information on first amendment protected groups and events. The BRIC makes routine assessments on information it receives to determine its retention. The assessment is done on a case by case basis and retention levels range from a permanent intelligence entry, to a temporary status where information is purged after one year, to an interim classification which requires the information be purged within 90 days.

In 2011, the Department acknowledged and corrected an error in the computer software. Over a four year period we found 11 intelligence reports, which should have been classified as interim and purged from the Department’s database within 90 days. The software system failed to flag the reports to be deleted. The system has since been updated and is under routine scrutiny to ensure it is working properly.

The BRIC does not maintain continued surveillance or documentation on peace protest groups. Boston residents should confidently participate in any lawful, peaceful protest or demonstration knowing the Boston Police Department is not monitoring the events without specific information on suspected criminal activity."

 
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