Commissioner Evans of the Boston PD came before the Boston City Council last week to counter activists’ arguments that adopting an ordinance mandating police body-worn cameras would decrease police uses of force and complaints. His favored alternative solutions were (1) more ice-cream socials, because Boston is a “model” city for community policing; (2) delay, because more research is needed on whether they would work in Boston; and (3) in a sit-down interview with the Boston Herald, calling for laws requiring citizens filming police to keep their distance and for them to help police subdue suspects.
We’ll get to the ice-cream socials in a minute, shall we?
“Fusion centers” are intelligence-aggregation operations, created after the 9/11 Commission found that, had agencies (namely the FBI and CIA) engaged in more free and open sharing of information, the terrorist attacks could have been prevented. (The laws in 2001 permitted sharing that would have prevented the attacks; but the agencies were overly cautious about sharing data out of turf concerns.)
There are now at least 78 fusion centers dispersed throughout the United States. They claim to focus mostly on collecting intelligence of activity that may have a “nexus” to terrorism, but also criminal activity more broadly. But they operate in almost total darkness, with virtually no transparency. The little we do know suggests that fusion centers neither prevent terrorist acts nor respect First Amendment rights to free speech and free association.
The Intercept reported last week on the fusion centers’ targeting of Black Lives Matter protests, but there are also many other examples, going back to the fusion centers’ founding. The ACLU of Massachusetts found that the Boston Regional Intelligence Center — one of two fusion centers in the Bay State — was spying on antiwar groups; the Austin Regional Intelligence Center was caught monitoring peaceful animal rights activists protesting a circus (I reported on this for MuckRock); and a fusion center in Nebraska — the Nebraska Information Analysis Center — has a special network focusing on activists opposing the Keystone XL pipeline. They justify such activities by claiming that they are monitoring “for situational awareness”, and that this doesn’t constitute surveillance. In fact, that’s exactly what surveillance is; “For Your Situational Awareness” is military jargon for obtaining the intelligence needed to make appropriate battlefield decisions.
Given the lack of sunlight surrounding the everyday activities of the dozens of fusion centers throughout the country, we decided we want to find out more. Naturally, we filed a public records request. We wanted to find out where our other local fusion center — the Commonwealth Fusion Center run by the Massachusetts State Police — gets their intelligence; who has authorized access to their databases; whether any errors in their databases have been discovered; and what kind of information the CFC has on myself and Alex Marthews, the national chair of Restore the Fourth.
When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, MO, there was no video of it. When Denis Reynoso was shot in Lynn, MA, there was no video of it. But what if there had been? And what if police bodycams could significantly reduce incidents of use of force by police?
Responding to this need, Digital Fourth took model legislation developed by the Harvard Black Law Students Association that mandates bodycams for police departments, modified it for Massachusetts, and got a bill filed on Beacon Hill. This session was the first time our gallant volunteers have tried anything like this, and we got a strong response. Sen. Jamie Eldridge filed the bill in the Senate; Rep. Denise Provost filed it in the House; and it has already attracted as cosponsors Rep. Benjamin Swan (D-Springfield), Rep. Mary Keefe (D-Worcester) and Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Boston).
The bill is a result of months of consultation with interested police departments and grapples with some difficult issues – how would bodycam data be used? When would officers be required to record? What about the consent of the people being filmed? It sets up a blue-ribbon committee to review traffic stops, pedestrian stops, and bodycam footage, requires police officers to carry bodycams in almost all circumstances, and sets strong controls on the use and dissemination of the footage.
As this appears to be the only bodycams bill that got filed in the 2015-16 session, we believe that our bill represents the best chance of fostering a discussion about reducing on-the-ground unreasonable searches and seizures – the bread and butter of the Fourth Amendment – and that it could substantially improve relations between the police and communities of color in particular. Community-police relations directly affects those working on policy initiatives: One of the people advising on our bill, Segun Idowu, chairman of the Boston Police Cameras Action Team, was arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest and is currently facing trial.
“Our research, inspired by current events, confirms that community/police relations may be improved with the use of this technology, as bodycams will provide a truth that has no color,” said McKenzie Morris, President of the Harvard Black Law Students Association. “This legislation, albeit a first step, is a necessary endeavor for the pursuit of transparency and accountability in policing.”