Ten months ago, Digital Fourth submitted a public records request to Boston’s fusion center, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center. It took two appeals to the Secretary of State to get it, but we finally got a response.
The states operate a network of 78 fusion centers across the nation, which coordinate intelligence-related information between federal agencies and state and local law enforcement, in the name of thwarting terrorist attacks. They have never, to anyone’s knowledge, actually thwarted one, and they have become bywords in Washington for waste and ineffectiveness. Previously, we reported on constitutional violations and the results of a FOIA request at Massachusetts’ “Commonwealth Fusion Center”, operated by the State Police; now it’s the turn of Massachusetts’ other fusion center, headquartered at the Boston PD.
The most interesting document we received is the “2013 Fusion Center Assessment Individual Report: Boston Regional Intelligence Center”. This report was heavily redacted, but luckily the State of Colorado has posted on its website an unredacted 2014 report from Colorado’s fusion center that is absolutely identical in format to the Boston report we received, rendering all of the redactions in the Boston report moot. So if you’d like to understand what the BRIC didn’t want us to see, read on.
Back in 1967, the much-missed Abbie Hoffman and several hundred of his friends hatched a plan to exorcise and levitate the Pentagon, so that they could end the war in Vietnam. They meticulously went through all the steps for requesting a permit (including negotiating the proposed levitation down to three feet, from the initially suggested 300 feet). Most amazingly of all, to our tired War-on-Terror eyes, they were allowed to go through with it, albeit with several thousand US troops and a couple hundred US Marshals standing ready in case of chaos.
Pity, in this last context, the Rainbow Family of Living Light, who make the mistake of “stressing non-violence, peace and love.” We Are Change reports that Missoula’s police chief has applied for a grant from DHS (who else?) to purchase a mobile command unit to spy on the Rainbow Family as an “extremist” organization. One of its gatherings was described as “rowdy” and as “creat[ing] a mess that [needed] to be cleaned up”. If that makes you an extremist, then based on the appearance of our toy room I appear to have two domestic extremist seven-year-olds; maybe I should be applying for a quarter-million dollar grant from DHS myself?
My goodness gracious. Well, the last thing we Americans want is any rowdiness. Leave that to the Canadians, or possibly the British. We, unlike them, are sober and obedient people who dutifully obey orders from the powers that be. It’s the only safe thing to do in this post-9/11 world.
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.”
No, what’s really got House Republicans in a lather about DHS is realizing that something “must-pass” like a DHS funding bill would be a great vehicle for a poison-pill amendment overturning the President’s executive actions on immigration. So they sent that bill up to the Senate, and Senate Republicans, needing five Democratic votes to push through a DHS funding bill, somehow can’t find any Democrats willing to commit electoral hara-kiri with their own base in order to please the Republicans’ base. Go figure!
As a result, in two weeks’ time the DHS will run out of money, and apologists for the security state are beginning to panic – but they’re having trouble getting their stories straight. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) warns us all, “We can’t go too far here because look what happened in Paris.” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) fulminates, “We can’t shut down the DHS. Not with the threats the homeland is subjected to as a result of the rise of ISIS.” [Note: There is no threat to “the homeland” from ISIS.] For God’s sake, the TSA might run out of money! What an awful shame that would be!
The DHS is a failure. It was a bad idea to begin with, coming out of the incorrect notion that the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented by “joined-up intelligence.” It never made sense to yoke the Coast Guard, FEMA, and the customs/border/transportation security/immigration agencies awkwardly together. DHS has always been poorly managed. It just layers an extra frosting of highly remunerated officials on top of agencies that would do just as fine where they were before. So let’s take a closer look at what a sensible structure would look like.
For who-knows-how-many years, the Drug Enforcement Administration has been using Automatic License Plate Recognition software to create a national database of the driving habits of ordinary citizens not suspected of a crime, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act. The documents describe the state of the surveillance effort as of 2009, leaving us wondering just how vast it could be today.
This vehicle tracking program originated near border crossings in the southwestern United States but has grown into a nation-wide project. It is a joint effort between the DEA and local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. The surveillance program has been alluded to in Congressional testimony every once in a while through the years, but has yet to be fully understood. The documents released by the ACLU, despite being heavily redacted, shine some much-needed light on the interests and priorities of the DEA and federal law enforcement agencies in general. As of 2009, at least 100 license plate readers had been deployed in states like California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New Jersey.
And we should be concerned. According to the ACLU:
These records . . . offer documentation that this program is a major DEA initiative that has the potential to track our movements around the country. With its jurisdiction and its finances, the federal government is uniquely positioned to create a centralized repository of all drivers’ movements across the country — and the DEA seems to be moving toward doing just that. If license plate readers continue to proliferate without restriction and the DEA holds license plate reader data for extended periods of time, the agency will soon possess a detailed and invasive depiction of our lives.
Last month, we broke the news that even small towns in Massachusetts, like Rehoboth and Norfolk, were getting mine-resistant armored vehicles for free from the federal government, and had no good answer for why they needed them.
Last Friday was the deadline for filing bills for the Massachusetts legislature’s 2015-16 session, and we took the opportunity to draft a solution to the state’s police militarization problem.
Sponsored by Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), our bill doesn’t ban police departments altogether from getting military-style equipment. What it does is forbid them from getting them for free, either from the federal government or as a gift from any third party. If they want to get military equipment (including stingrays or drones), the mayor and city council (in a city) or the selectmembers (in a town) have to vote publicly to approve that purchase, in effect forcing the purchase to come out of municipal funds.
Right now, the process is not democratic. The federal surplus programs are a remote corner of the federal budget, and their costs are a rounding error in DC. But to the taxpayers of a town like Rehoboth, it makes a big difference whether it’s them or the feds paying for a $700,000 MRAP.
Here’s a question: How much of a national security threat are people protesting the non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown?
If you answered, There’s no national security threat; they’re exercising their First Amendment rights, which should be celebrated, then you’re obviously a pre-9/11-American, which is enough to get you disinvited from the major TV propaganda shows.
In Methuen, MA, security contractor Shooter Detection Systems (“1-844-SHOT911”) has convinced school administrators to install a “Guardian” system that “constantly monitors” school hallways and classrooms for sounds of gunfire. As an extra, they got local Congresswoman Niki Tsongas to intone pieties about making schools “safe sanctuaries for learning.” Apparently, that means “lending my credibility to a sales campaign that will funnel school tax money away from teachers and supplies and into the pockets of contractors, in the name of thwarting random low-probability events.”
Raw Story picked up the press release, and indulged in their own little bit of security theater, noting soberly that the PR firm for Shooter Detection Systems had asked them not to reveal the name of the school even while they had named the relevant town in its own press release.
There are people who will tell you that the fact that the Republicans now control 53 Senate seats as well as a large majority in the House, will lead to actual and meaningful legislative action, whether on immigration, tax reform, or infrastructure spending. Oh, those people are going to be so frustrated by the next two years.
Both Congress and the President have strong incentives to play to their bases so that the bases turn out in 2016, so they will still highlight hot-button issues that will activate them. The mysterious thing is that there is plenty of bipartisan consensus in Washington; it’s just that it applies only to certain issues, and doesn’t get reported on much because neither party wants to highlight it. Specifically, there is genuine, friendly, unstated bipartisan consensus on the set of policies that buttresses the party elites’ authority and prosperity.
What supports the elites? War; monopoly; a crisis-hungry unity between corporations and the state, in the name of “national security.” A revolving door between the two. Corrupt, no-bid contracts. Open bankrolling of political campaigns. And underpinning it all, mass, suspicionless surveillance to monitor any discontent with this state of affairs. It’s not a coincidence that new authority for a war of extirpation against ISIS is likely to be high on the new Congress’s agenda; without an external enemy, without war, looting the state gets much harder.
These matters will not fill the TV news, however – not when the much juicier stories of repeated efforts to repeal Obamacare and impeachment of the President are available as narratives. These narratives, at least, don’t require news outlets to examine their own complicity in in supporting the elites.
Vermont Public Radio does the spadework to find out whether automated license plate surveillance systems offer a reasonable return on investment:
“…Even with the millions of scans, the system has not led to many arrests or breakthroughs in major criminal investigations. […] They were helpful in solving fewer than five crimes in 2013. [Officer] Cram [of Winooski PD] says the federally-funded ALPR is a valuable tool, even though he doesn’t think the city would have put up $25,000 of its own money to buy one.“
At a cost of “over $1 million” over five years, that works out at around $50,000 per crime solved.[Note: Initial calculations of $40,000 per crime solved were based on an inaccurate figure of five crimes solved.]
At a rate of $50,000 per crime, you could hire one part-time police officer, and I suspect that that part-time police officer would solve more than one crime per year. So what gives?
This is what gives, for ALPR, for surveillance cameras, and for military surplus equipment. Police departments count the cost of new surveillance equipment at zero, even when it’s not (taxpayers ultimately pay). It’s hard for police chiefs to turn down free, even if free offers only the most marginal prospect of reducing crime. But it says everything about the utility of this technology that, had the City of Winooski been asked to put up its own money, Officer Cram thought that they wouldn’t have done it. Oh – and I almost forgot to mention – as the article mentions, the entity charged with managing the data from this boondoggle is, naturally, the Vermont fusion center.