The Boston Police Department is keeping a secretive gang database that tracks nearly 5,000 people, most of them young Black and Latino men, according to newly released data. Several civil rights groups sued the department in November seeking information into the database and how authorities use the information.
Data released by the department revealed that 66 percent of the people in the database are Black, 24 percent are Latinx, and 2 percent are white, The Associated Press (AP) reported. The database does not reflect the racial makeup of Boston’s population, which is over 50 percent white, 25 percent Black, and 20 percent Latinx.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts sued Boston PD in November to learn more about the department’s gang database. According to the AP, the lawsuit claimed that “Central American youths are being wrongly listed as active gang members ‘based on nothing more than the clothing they are seen in and the classmates they are seen with.’”
“In Boston, we call our city a sanctuary for immigrants, but behind the scenes, under cover of secrecy, local law enforcement profiling systems allow young people to be targeted and deported — even when they haven’t been suspected of engaging in criminal activity,” Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement at the time.
The newly released data shows that the racial disparity is “stark and troublesome,” ACLU of Massachusetts attorney Adriana Lafaille told the AP. “This has consequences,” Lafaille claimed. “People are being deported back to the countries that they fled, in many cases, to escape gangs.”
Boston’s gang database uses a points-based system, which results in anyone being labeled a “gang associate” if they accrue at least six points and a full-fledged gang member if they get 10 or more points. Interacting with a known gang member or associate will earn a person two points per interaction while having a known gang tattoo will earn them eight points, the AP reported.
A summary of the database, as of January, was given to the AP and showed that a little more than half of the 4,728 people listed were deemed “active” gang associates. The remaining people were classified as “inactive,” “deceased,” or “long term incarcerated,” WBUR reported.
Over 90 percent of the suspected gang affiliates were men, the summary revealed. Most of those tracked, nearly 75 percent, were between the ages of 25 and 40, according to the AP.
Documents from Boston PD show that several agencies, both at the state and federal level, have access to its gang database including MBTA transit police; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the US Department of Homeland Security; Boston Housing Authority police; Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department; and Boston School Police.
Lafaille told WBUR that the ACLU is still waiting to receive more documents from Boston police to obtain “the full picture of how information gets into the gang database” and “how that information is then shared out with other agencies.”
Boston is far from the only city to keep a so-called gang database or to face backlash for it. Earlier in July an advocacy group filed a lawsuit claiming that a database kept in Providence, Rhode Island violates constitutional rights. In 2017, Portland, Oregon’s Police Bureau was pressured to shut down its database after it was revealed that over 80 percent of the people tracked were minorities, the AP reported.
Carl Suddler, an assistant professor of African American history at Emory University, explained to The North Star that the practice of gang databases has been used for a long time. In his new book, Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in Postwar New York, Suddler examines the history of policies and strategies that have criminalized Black youth.
Suddler explained that police departments often promote the use of these types of databases as a way to prevent crime. “Ultimately … it increases (Black and Brown youths’) contact with the law, and that increased contact often leads to increased arrests. And arrests drive crime statistics, and crime statistics drive the perception of who we think of as criminals,” Suddler said.
About the Author
Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.