The Massachusetts attorney general's office has launched an investigation into allegations of racial bias at the Boston Police Department’s youth gang unit and its associated database, according to a statement from the office released late Monday.
The probe by state Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s civil rights division will examine an alleged “pattern or practice of racially biased policing” within the Youth Violence Strike Force, the department’s gang unit, state officials said. A Boston police spokesperson says the department will cooperate with the review.
State officials say the review will look into the task force's work since 2018 with a goal of reforming the gang unit, following calls from civil rights advocates who want the database to be abolished, citing alleged racism and a lack of transparency. It comes amidst a national review of similar units following the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, who was killed during a traffic stop by five members of that city's now disbanded gang unit.
"The Boston Police gang database is flawed and shouldn't be relied on to make consequential decisions about people’s lives,” said Carol Rose, the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, one of several civil rights groups who sued the police department last year to make more information about the database public. “The database overwhelmingly targets Black and Hispanic young people, who have been labeled as gang members for little more than wearing popular brands or even becoming a victim of gang violence … the attorney general is right to investigate it."
A “gang” is qualified as three or more people who individually or together engage in criminal activity, frequent a specific location and share a common name or identifier, like a color or symbol, according to the Boston Police Department’s rules and procedures. Gang members are “active” if they have met the criteria to be associated with a gang, had contact with another gang member or participated in gang activity within the last five years.
A summary provided by the department in response to the ACLU’s 2019 lawsuit showed that 90% of the 4,700 individuals in the gang database at that time were Black or Latino.
“Youth have been surveilled in Dorchester and Roxbury for wearing a certain kind of hat or hanging out in a certain corner of the neighborhood,” said Massachusetts Bail Fund Director Janhavi Madabushi. “There's just such a low threshold for what gets you onto a list, and whatever gets you on that list is something that justifies you being policed or surveilled for however long the unit deems necessary.”
An association with the gang database can prevent pre-trial detainees from getting access to bail for months or even years, Madabushi said.
“We're seeing an increase in dangerousness hearings, where a prosecutor and judge can determine through a random set of criteria that a person is too dangerous to be let out on cash bail,” she said. Detainees take plea deals to limit jail time in what Madabushi described as “a dangerous pattern in preventive detention … detaining of people who are supposedly innocent until proven guilty, but not this time.”
The investigation is ongoing and has not yet made any findings or conclusions. If issues are discovered, the goal is to work with the police department in reforming the unit and database, a spokesperson for Campbell said.
Madabushi says it remains unclear whether the investigation will result in “the type of victory that our community members need and want to see,” and will require the attorney general’s office to seek out directly impacted people, many of whom might be hesitant to come forward.
“I feel a little bit apprehensive to sort of rejoice before understanding how the [attorney general’s office] is going to conduct this investigation, what their considerations are,” she said. “But I hope that this surfaces what community members have been saying for a really long time.”