BOSTON - Civil rights groups want to know more about the Boston Police Department's surveillance of political activists and protests and what it does with the collected information.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the National Lawyers Guild of Massachusetts have filed a lawsuit on behalf of eight Boston-area political groups and four individual activists.
The groups want the department to disclose information about its monitoring practices and its policies on sharing information with federal agencies.
The suit, filed under the Massachusetts Public Records law, seeks disclosure of BPD records regarding the Department's surveillance and recording of protest activities and assemblies, the monitoring of political groups and activists, as well as records relating to the collection and sharing of information with the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies.
"There have been significant changes in the surveillance operations of the BPD," said Laura Rótolo, ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney. "For years, the BPD has conducted surveillance of political protests, openly recording legal rallies, marches and demonstrations in public areas. But now that information can be centrally monitored, indexed, and stored electronically, and shared through state and national surveillance networks. We brought this suit because we believe the public should know what information is being collected about political activities, how it is being used, and what policies, if any, are in place to protect privacy and individual liberty."
The plaintiffs are organizations and individuals whose previous requests for information on surveillance practices and privacy protections have been rejected by the BPD. Joining the ACLU of Massachusetts and the National Lawyers Guild of Massachusetts are Political Research Associates, Veterans for Peace–Chapter 9 Smedley Butler Brigade, CodePink of Greater Boston, the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights, the Greater Boston Stop the Wars Coalition, and United for Justice with Peace.
The four individual plaintiffs seeking information about BPD surveillance practices were detained and interrogated by the BPD in 2009 following a non-violent protest at the Israeli consulate in Boston.
Although officers acknowledged during their interrogation that the activists had been under surveillance at previous political protests, the BPD subsequently asserted that it had no record of interrogating them.
"The public has a right to know the scope of surveillance of protected First Amendment activity," said David Kelston, an attorney who represents the National Lawyers Guild of Massachusetts and represented the four individual activists who were detained and questioned. "The BPD's claim that they have no record of interrogating these activists defies belief and must be challenged."
This action seeks information on the surveillance policies and practices of the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), which was created by the BPD and federal Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice in 2005, ostensibly to collect and share information on terrorist threats and subversive activities in Boston.
It also seeks public information on the BPD's participation in the FBI's so-called "Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative", a pilot program that directs local police officers to collect and share information on broadly defined "suspicious activities" that may include lawful political activity and protected political speech. It does not seek information on individual cases or investigations.
"Boston is using tax dollars to participate in what is billed as a 'pilot program' that authorizes local police to create dossiers on ordinary citizens, essentially criminalizing protected political activities, so why is all information about this test program hidden from the public?" said Thom Cincotta, an attorney and researcher with Political Research Associates, a Somerville-based research organization.
"Democracy dies behind closed doors," said the ACLU's Rótolo. "Shedding sunlight on police surveillance practices is the best way to guard against abuses of power and to ensure that law enforcement doesn't hide behind anti-terrorism rhetoric to justify programs and practices that chill legal dissent and quash protected political speech and assembly."