Boston Police Records Show Nearly 70 Percent of ShotSpotter Alerts Led to Dead Ends

Image credit: Sketch illustration by Inna Lugovyh

The ACLU of Massachusetts has acquired over 1,300 documents detailing the use of ShotSpotter by the Boston Police Department from 2020 to 2022. These public records shed light for the first time on how this controversial technology is deployed in Boston.  

ShotSpotter — now SoundThinking — is a for-profit technology company that uses microphones, algorithmic assessments, and human analysts to record audio and attempt to identify potential gunshots. A public records document from 2014 describes a deployment process that considers locations for microphones including government buildings, housing authorities, schools, private buildings and utility poles.

According to city records, Boston has spent over $4 million on ShotSpotter since 2012, deploying the technology mostly in communities of color. Despite the hefty price tag, in nearly 70 percent of ShotSpotter alerts, police found no evidence of gunfire. In one case, ShotSpotter was set off by a piñata at a birthday party. The records indicate that over 10 percent of ShotSpotter alerts flagged fireworks, not weapons discharges.

The records add more evidence to support what researchers and government investigators have found in other cities: ShotSpotter is unreliable, ineffective, and a danger to civil rights and civil liberties. It’s time to end Boston’s relationship with ShotSpotter. Boston’s ShotSpotter contract expires in June, making now the pivotal moment to stop wasting millions on this ineffective technology.

Boston’s relationship with ShotSpotter dates from 2007. A recent leak of ShotSpotter locations confirms ShotSpotter is deployed almost exclusively in communities of color. In Boston, ShotSpotter microphones are installed primarily in Dorchester and Roxbury, in areas where some neighborhoods are over 90 percent Black and/or Latine.  

Coupled with the high error rate of the system, BPD records indicate that ShotSpotter perpetuates the over-policing of communities of color, encouraging police to comb through neighborhoods and interrogate residents in response to what often turn out to be false alarms.  

For each instance of potential gunfire, ShotSpotter makes an initial algorithmic assessment (gunshot, fireworks, other) and sends the audio file to a team of human analysts, who make their own prediction about whether it is definitely, possibly, or not gunfire. These analysts use heuristics like whether the audio waveform looks like “a sideways Christmas tree” and if there is “100% certainty of gunfire in the reviewer’s mind.” 

ShotSpotter relies heavily on these human analysts to correct ShotSpotter predictions; an internal document estimates that human workers overrule around 10 percent of the company’s algorithmic assessments. The remaining alerts comprise the reports we received: cases in which police officers were dispatched to investigate sounds ShotSpotter identified as gunfire. But the records show that in most cases, dispatched police officers did not recover evidence of shots fired. 

Analyzing over 1,300 police reports, we found that almost 70 percent of ShotSpotter alerts returned no evidence of shots fired.  

In all, 16 percent of alerts corresponded to common urban sounds: fireworks, balloons, piñatas, vehicles backfiring, garbage trucks and construction. Over 1 in 10 ShotSpotter alerts in Boston were just fireworks, despite a “fireworks suppression mode” that ShotSpotter implements on major holidays.  

ShotSpotter markets its technology as a “gunshot detection algorithm,” but these records indicate that it struggles to reliably and accurately perform that central task. Indeed, email metadata we received from the BPD describe several emails that seem to refer to inaccurate ShotSpotter readings. The records confirm what public officials and independent researchers have reported about the technology’s use in communities across the country. For example, in 2018, Fall River Police abandoned ShotSpotter, saying it didn’t “justify the cost.” In recent years, many communities in the United States have either declined to adopt ShotSpotter after unimpressive pilots or elected to stop using the technology altogether.

Coupled with reports from other communities, these new BPD records indicate that ShotSpotter is a waste of money. But it’s worse than just missed opportunities and poor resource allocation. In the nearly 70 percent of cases where ShotSpotter sent an alert but police found no evidence of gunfire, residents of mostly Black and brown communities were confronted by police officers looking for shooters who may not have existed, creating potentially dangerous situations for residents and heightening tension in an otherwise peaceful environment.  

Just this February, a Chicago police officer responding to a ShotSpotter alert fired his gun at a teenage boy who was lighting fireworks. Luckily, the boy was not physically harmed. Tragically, 13-year-old Chicago resident Adam Toledo was not so fortunate; he was killed when Chicago police officers responded to a ShotSpotter alert in 2021. The resulting community outrage led Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson to campaign on the promise of ending ShotSpotter. This year, Mayor Johnson followed through on that promise by announcing Chicago would not extend its ShotSpotter contract. 

The most dangerous outcome of a false ShotSpotter alert is a police shooting. But over the years, ShotSpotter alerts have also contributed to wrongful arrests and increased police stops, almost exclusively in Black and brown neighborhoods. BPD records — detailing incidents from 2020-2022 — include several cases where people in the vicinity of an alert were stopped, searched, or cited — just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  

For instance, in 2021, someone driving in the vicinity of a ShotSpotter alert was pulled over and cited for an “expired registration, excessive window tint, and failure to display a front license plate.” Since ShotSpotter devices in Boston are predominately located in Black and brown neighborhoods, its alerts increase the funneling of police into those neighborhoods, even when there is no evidence of a shooting. This dynamic exacerbates the cycle of over-policing of communities of color and increases mistrust towards police among groups of people who are disproportionately stopped and searched.  

This dynamic can lead to grave civil rights harms. In Chicago, a 65-year-old grandfather was charged with murder after he was pulled over in the area of a ShotSpotter alert. The charges were eventually dismissed, but only after he had already spent a year in jail.  

In summary, our findings add to the large and growing body of research that all comes to the same conclusion: ShotSpotter is an unreliable technology that poses a substantial threat to civil rights and civil liberties, almost exclusively for the Black and brown people who live in the neighborhoods subject to its ongoing surveillance. 

Since 2012, Boston has spent over $4 million on ShotSpotter. But BPD records indicate that, more often than not, police find no evidence of gunfire — wasting officer time looking for witness corroboration and ballistics evidence of gunfire they never find. The true cost of ShotSpotter goes beyond just dollars and cents and wasted officer time. ShotSpotter has real human costs for civil rights and liberties, public safety, and community-police relationships.  

For these and other reasons, cities including Canton, OH, Charlotte, NC, Dayton, OH, Durham, NC, Fall River, MA, and San Antonio, TX have decided to end the use of this controversial technology. In San Diego, CA, after a campaign by residents to end the use of ShotSpotter, officials let the contract lapse. And cities like Atlanta, GA and Portland, OR tested the system but decided it wasn’t worth it. 

From coast to coast, cities across the country have wised up about ShotSpotter. The company appears to have taken notice of the trend, and in 2023 spent $26.9 million on “sales and marketing”. But the cities that have decided not to partner with the company are right: Community safety shouldn’t rely on unproven surveillance that threatens civil rights. Boston’s ShotSpotter contract is up for renewal in June. To advance racial justice, effective anti-violence investments, and civil rights and civil liberties, it’s time for Boston to drop ShotSpotter. 


Further reading 

Emiliano Falcon-Morano contributed to the research for this post. With thanks to Kade Crockford for comments and Tarak Shah from HRDAG for technical advice.


Eyes in the Sky: Massachusetts State Police Used Drones to Monitor Black Lives Matter Protests

Records obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts reveal the State Police routinely fly drones over the Commonwealth, for a variety of purposes, without warrants.

During the summer of 2020, as the nationwide movement against systemic racism grew in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, the State Police here in Massachusetts  (MSP) were busy sending drones to quietly monitor Black Lives Matter protesters across the state.

Records obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts show the MSP used aerial surveillance to track protests occurring in Fitchburg, Leominster, Gardner, Worcester, Agawam, and Boston. While internal police reports say police did not (in most cases) retain pictures or videos of the protests, the video feeds were streamed in real time to local police departments and the State Police Fusion Center for “situational awareness.” 

The records also reveal that the MSP has participated in trainings facilitated by Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger turned police trainer who has faced extensive criticism for his violent rhetoric. Grossman is infamous for teaching police what he calls “killology,” a so-called “warrior mindset” for officers.

Records obtained by the ACLU last year from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) show drones are in use by police departments across the state. Unlike other aerial surveillance technologies such as helicopters and spy planes, drones are easy to deploy, cheap, small, and quiet to operate. According to FAA records,  the MSP owns 81 drones—making its program the largest law enforcement drone operation in the state. 

The ACLU of Massachusetts filed several public records requests to understand how the MSP uses drones. In response to a request asking for records about drone use since 2020, the MSP told us there were almost 200,000 relevant records. Unfortunately, the MSP asked us to pay for most of them, amounting to a sum we could not afford. After negotiating with the agency, we agreed to narrow our request in the following way. We asked for (i) emails and reports for the time period between May 29, 2020 to June 15, 2020 and (ii) additional reports for the period between January 20, 2022 to May 24, 2022. This resulted in the disclosure of hundreds—instead of hundreds of thousands—of pages of documents. What we obtained therefore only opens a small window onto the MSP’s drone program, but the records nonetheless provide important information about how the MSP uses their drones.

How did the MSP acquire a drone fleet?

According to the records, as of October 2022, the department had 22 drones, including the following makes and models:

  • Four Mavic 2 Hasselblads
  • Three Mavic 2 Enterprise Duals
  • Two Sparks
  • Three Matrice 300 RTKs
  • Eight Mavic Minis
  • One Phantom 4 Pro+

The two most advanced drones are the Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual and the Matrice 300 RTK.

  • The Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual: This powerful drone has thermal imagery capabilities, an integrated radiometric thermal sensor, adjustable parameters for emissivity and reflective surfaces, and multiple display modes.
  • The Matrice 300 RTK: This is also a very advanced model—at the time of writing, the latest one released by the manufacturer DJI—offering up to 55 minutes of flight time, machine learning technology that recognizes a subject of interest and identifies it in subsequent automated missions to ensure consistent framing, six directional sensing and positioning, and 15km-1080p map transmission.

The records show the federal government financed the expansion of the MSP drone program, with the state government as an intermediary. In 2019, the MSP received an award of $99,011 from the state government to purchase drones. The funding came from the Homeland Security Grant Program, a Department of Homeland Security funding stream available to all states. This federal funding, passed through the state, allowed the State Police to purchase nine drones from a company called Safeware.

The MSP’s drone policy

The MSP also produced a policy to govern the department’s use of drones. The policy includes some important civil rights protections, but needs substantial work. And crucially, an ACLU review of records provided by the MSP indicates the department’s compliance with the policy appears to be inconsistent.

The policy establishes that drones may be used for a list of purposes that is far too broad, leaving the door open to abuse and misuse. The policy should explicitly list all permissible purposes for drone use. Instead, it takes an open-ended approach. For example, the records show “Homeland Security” is listed as a permissible purpose for drone usage. But this  vague phrase is open to extremely broad interpretation, and could be used to justify drone usage in almost any scenario. 

The policy states that the drone program is operated by the Unmanned Aerial Section of the Homeland Security and Preparedness division of the MSP. But “Homeland Security” has nothing to do with the vast majority of enumerated purposes listed in the policy, such as accident reconstruction, missing persons investigations, and criminal investigations surveillance. It is likely that the “Homeland Security” division is in charge of the drone program simply because the money for most of the drones came from the federal DHS, not because the drones are actually used in operations relative to “homeland security” operations.

The policy requires police to obtain a warrant or court order to use a drone in a criminal investigation, where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy (except in exigent circumstances). However, in response to our requests, the MSP did not produce a single search warrant, indicating that the department has never obtained one to use a drone for surveillance purposes. There could be several reasons for this.  It’s possible that police are: 1)simply not using drones in criminal investigations, 2) using them without a warrant in violation of the policy, 3) defining “reasonable expectation of privacy” too narrowly, or 4) simply using drones only to investigate criminal activity when exigent circumstances make getting a warrant impractical. Regardless, the fact that the MSP has never once obtained a warrant to use a drone indicates that the policy does not offer sufficient privacy protection. This suggests that we need a law on the books to enforce our rights.

Current privacy protections are not enough

To the MSP’s credit, their policy incorporates the principle of data minimization. This means that in order for any data to be collected with a drone, that data must be essential to complete the objective of the drone mission. Additionally, the policy states that drones cannot be paired with facial recognition technology to identify individuals in real time, and may not be used to carry weapons or facilitate the use of any weapons and/or dispersal payloads. These are important protections, and the ACLU applauds the MSP for including them.

That said, other language in the policy meant to protect civil rights and civil liberties is weak. For example, the policy forbids police from using a drone to target a person based solely on individual characteristics such as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, gender, or sexual orientation. But the inclusion of the word “solely” leaves open the possibility that the police will target someone in part on the basis of a protected characteristic like their race or national origin.

Likewise, the policy forbids the collection, use, retention, or dissemination of data in any manner that would violate the First Amendment or in any manner that would unlawfully discriminate against persons based upon their ethnicity, race, gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. But case law is underdeveloped and insufficient in these areas, leaving decision making about what constitutes a First Amendment violation or discrimination up to the police. Instead, the language should clearly stipulate that the MSP shall not use drones to monitor people exercising their First Amendment rights to assemble, petition the government, exercise their religion, or protest. 

Instead, the policy allows drone footage to be collected, processed, used, and shared in a broad range of situations that threaten core civil rights and civil liberties. And this is exactly what’s happened, such as when the MSP, in partnership with local police, used drones to surveil Black Lives Matter protests across the state. Under the guise of “crowd control, traffic incident management, and temporary perimeter security,” the MSP was actively surveilling people exercising their First Amendment rights. The MSP should strengthen their policy to prohibit the collection and processing of drone information concerning First Amendment expression. 

Finally, the policy is silent on a critical issue: data sharing. As a result, we do not know who has access to drone footage collected by the MSP, under what circumstances, or subject to what type of request. The lack of any information about data sharing is particularly concerning given the involvement of the Commonwealth Fusion Center in the drone program.



How has the MSP used drones?

While the policy sets out how drones ought to be used, emails, communications, and reports show how the MSP actually uses its drones. To that end, we obtained drone flight logs covering the period between January and May 2022. Generally, those records show that drones were mostly used in the following places:



You can access an interactive map here.


Municipalities where the Mass State Police conducted drone flights between January 1 and May 24, 2022


The records show that the MSP used drones for the following purposes during this time period:

  • Monitoring Black Lives Matter protests and rallies in Fitchburg, Leominster, Gardner, Worcester, Agawam, and Boston;
  • In criminal investigations, for example an  attempt to locate evidence related to a New Hampshire State Police investigation (the MSP found no evidence);
  • Finding missing persons;
  • Mapping accident scenes;
  • Mapping airports; 
  • Transit purposes;
  • Investigating the operation of private drones; and
  • Training and mapping exercises.



Note that the category “Search & Rescue” includes missions ranging from searching for missing persons to searching for suspects in criminal investigations. Of the 25 flights labeled “Search & Rescue,” at least 7 are related to criminal investigations or searches for suspects, and 18 related to missions looking for missing persons such as elderly people or people with mental health issues. These are very different kinds of missions, and the MSP should group them into different categories in order to facilitate greater transparency and accountability.

Learning more about government use of drones in Massachusetts

The records published here provide a glimpse into drone use at the MSP. But the MSP is not alone—many other police departments across the state use drones. During the summer of 2022, the Public Safety Subcommittee of Worcester City Council was the stage for a public outcry when community members expressed their concerns about the police department’s proposal to acquire drones. The Boston Police Department also has a large drone program. 

If you’re interested in learning more about how government agencies in Massachusetts use drones, you can use our model public records request to find out. More information about this process and resources are available through the tool linked below.

If you find anything interesting, please contact us at data4justice@aclum.org.


Data shows drug policing in Massachusetts overwhelmingly targeted drug users

Drug prosecution data released today by the ACLU of Massachusetts shows that police and prosecutors throughout Massachusetts arrested and prosecuted people for simple drug possession at alarming rates between 2003 and 2014.  

For the first time ever, the ACLU of Massachusetts is publishing comprehensive drug prosecution data covering this time period, giving residents, researchers, policymakers, and advocates a clear picture of how the drug war unfolded in courtrooms across the state over a decade. The data shows that even as politicians and police shifted away from “tough on crime” language towards acknowledging addiction as a disease, large numbers of people nonetheless continued to face arrest, prosecution, and conviction merely for possessing drugs.  

Of the over 600,000 drug charges filed against people in Massachusetts between 2003 and 2014, nearly half (44 percent) exclusively concerned simple possession. An additional 19 percent of charges were for “possession with intent to distribute,” a charge often leveled at drug users. In total, 63 percent of all drug charges in Massachusetts during this period were for possession or possession with intent to distribute, representing approximately 382,000 of the just over 600,000 drug charges filed against people during this time period.  

While these low-level drug charges clogged up courtrooms across the state and burdened people with jail time and fees, most of these cases did not lead to a guilty finding. Only 19 percent of simple possession cases resulted in a guilty finding or plea. Forty-two percent were dismissed outright. 

Likewise, only one in four of the over 100,000 prosecutions for possession with intent to distribute lead to a guilty finding or plea.  

On the other hand, drug trafficking charges represented a tiny fraction of the overall war on drugs in our state. Just 5 percent of all charges dealt with this more serious offense category. 

The data reveals striking differences in how police enforce drug laws across Massachusetts, showing that a handful of communities aggressively—and even exclusively—police drug possession. In eight rural communities in the western part of the state, every single drug arrest resulting in prosecution pertained to drug possession. On the other hand, in larger cities, drug possession prosecutions represented a smaller, though still troubling, percentage of the total. In Boston, for example, 35 percent of all drug prosecutions were for possession. In Worcester, the figure was 33 percent; in Springfield, it was 29 percent. One-in-three is nonetheless a disturbingly high rate, particularly given that big city police departments have significantly more resources and staff to investigate serious offenses. 

In addition to providing new details about the policing and prosecution of drug possession across the state, the ACLU’s data explorer allows users to see how drug policing has changed over time, in individual communities and statewide. Another feature, “Drugs by Class,” breaks down drug prosecution data by drug type, showing how prosecutions of specific classes of drugs have changed over time. Users interested in how drug prosecution patterns vary in each county can explore details about how different District Attorneys pursued the drug war on the “District Attorney Lookup” page. The tool also provides key data about the impact of the drug lab scandal and related conviction dismissals, showing that contrary to claims from some prosecutors, the mass dismissal of tens of thousands of fraudulent drug convictions did not lead to increases in reported violent crimes.  

The ACLU obtained the data from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court during multi-year litigation arising from systemic government misconduct at two separate drug labs responsible for testing substances. The litigation ultimately led to the mass dismissal of tens of thousands of tainted drug convictions.  

In Massachusetts, court data is not subject to the public records law, but the ACLU has asked the Massachusetts Trial Court to make drug prosecution data for the time period 2014 to the present available to us. We will update this tool if we receive it. 

Special thanks to Lauren Chambers for building this interactive data explorer.  


More of the Same: Unpacking the 2022 Boston Police Budget

Get caught up with last year’s Data for Justice analysis of the BPD budget, and other work around policing in Massachusetts.

Last month, Boston’s Acting Mayor Kim Janey released her recommended City budget for the upcoming 2022 fiscal year (FY). This budget claims to double down on reducing Boston police overtime, deepening last year’s $12 million budget cut by an additional $4.9 million.

The problem? As recent ACLU analysis shows, without a simultaneous commitment to reining in the power of police unions and penalizing Boston Police Department (BPD) budgetary overages, this “cut” will simply never come to be. Taken together with the fact that Mayor Janey’s recommendation doesn’t really touch the $355 million budgeted for non-overtime policing and otherwise ignores advocates’ calls to divest from police, the FY22 BPD budget is effectively unchanged from years past.

New analysis by the ACLU of Massachusetts unpacks the Boston Police Department budget – again – making it clear that it is effectively no smaller than previous years’ budgets.

The proposed Boston police budget is more of the same.

Numbers show that Mayor Janey’s proposed BPD budget is not a departure from previous BPD budgets. Despite misleading claims around reallocating police overtime, next year’s budget will maintain the status quo in terms of the overall BPD budget, the size of the force, and more.

The BPD budget is still the second-largest line item in the whole city, second only to Boston Public Schools. It is still 1.5x larger than the Cabinet of Administration and Finance (which constitutes 17 individual departments), 9x larger than the Library Department, and 110x larger than the Office of Arts and Culture. The newly-created Office of Police Accountability and Transparency is but a drop in the bucket – for comparison, it’s just over half of the annual BPD clothing allowance ($1.9 million proposed for FY22).

In FY20, Boston police employees were still paid almost $58,000 more than non-BPD City employees – averaging $132,000 in yearly earnings – and over 500 BPD employees still made more than Boston’s Mayor (519 this time).

Actually, BPD paychecks swelled even larger. Among the top 20 BPD earners, almost all of them made more in FY20 than they did in FY19:

And while the status quo is upheld, the true causes of exorbitant police budgets go unaddressed.

The $22 million “cut” to overtime means… nothing.

Though the mayor’s office is trying to pass it off as a $21.9 million cut, it’s important to note that the BPD overtime budget cut is actually only $4.9 million – from $48.8 million allocated last year to $43.9 million allocated this year. The $22 million figure is not the budgetary difference, but rather the difference from the FY21 projected spending ($65.8 million, according to the BPD).

But, even more fundamentally, it’s critical to debunk a central myth that underlies Mayor Janey’s BPD budget: that the City budget as it stands currently has any power over police overtime spending. Serious contractual and legal changes are needed – largely changes the mayor can make – before any police budget cuts can be meaningful. As laid out in a recent ACLU of Massachusetts analysis, the City’s current interpretation of an exception in the Boston Charter means that the BPD has no guardrails stopping it from grossly overspending.

This blank check comes at a mighty cost: projections of FY21 spending show police overtime is estimated to go $20 million over budget by the end of June.

If the BPD couldn’t actualize a $12 million overtime cut during a year when sports stadiums stayed empty and almost all public events were either cancelled or went virtual, why would they be able to actualize a $22 million cut in post-pandemic Boston? It is foolish for the City to expect a different outcome the second time around.

Without taking action that actually changes the system within which the BPD currently operates, the mayoral administration’s rhetoric around reallocating police overtime in next year’s budget is just that: empty rhetoric.

Mayor Janey’s “solution” to overtime will exacerbate the problem.

The Mayor’s recommended budget proposes hiring at least 50 more cops as a means of decreasing overtime spending. This idea is not new among those who would politically benefit from a more powerful police department; Boston City Councilors Ed Flynn and Annissa Essaibi George, as well as the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, frequently push to increase the size of the police force. But this solution, too, is based on a myth: that Boston’s police overtime problem is caused by too few police in the ranks. This is untrue; Boston’s police overtime problem is caused by exploitative and unsupervised policing practices that allow the BPD to bleed funds from the City.

Especially when considering the OT problem as a whole – from four hours of pay for 15 minute court appearances, to the Department’s inability to explain the cause of increased injury and sickness even predating COVID-19, to their reluctance to open up administrative positions to civilians, to the secrecy over the minimum staffing level formula – it becomes clear that overtime is not an issue of how many officers are clocking in.

Indeed, historical Boston budget data show that there has been no correlation between a larger police force and lower police overtime spending over the past decade. Some years when the force grew saw higher OT expenditures (e.g., 2014, 2020), and some years when the force shrunk saw lower OT costs (e.g., 2016, 2018). This isn’t surprising: more police lead to more extended tours and more court overtime – and new personnel aren’t necessarily assigned to the units using the most replacement OT.

All in all, hiring more officers would do nothing to resolve the BPD’s overtime problem… or to address the remaining hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to the BPD.

Overtime is just the tip of the iceberg.

Critically, Mayor Janey’s focus on cutting only overtime fails to address the whopping $355 million still allocated to the Boston police for non-overtime expenses. She makes no attempt to reduce BRIC funding, cut spending on military equipment, civilianize traffic enforcement, reduce funds for the Youth Violence Strike Force (“gang unit”), or adopt other recommendations urged by community groups.

What’s worse, Mayor Janey’s recommendation wholly ignores the harm that policing already causes to Black and brown communities across Boston, and that community leaders have been protesting for decades. The City’s vague proposal for “alternative policing,” which will work with the BPD, isn’t an acceptable alternative. As the DefundBosCops coalition emphasizes, we need to reroute funds and power into alternative safety initiatives, not just revamped policing. More boots on the ground will solve neither our fiscal dilemma, nor our ongoing local problems with violent and discriminatory policing.

In Boston, police overtime has become smoke and mirrors which distract from more important and urgent policing problems in the City.


Our vision for reinvesting police budgets should not stop at marginal and meaningless budget cuts – and certainly should not include increasing the number of police officers. What we need are new executive priorities that open the door to true budgetary and policy accountability from the police. Only then will efforts to divest from policing and reinvest in community initiatives even be feasible in Boston.

Yet in the shadow of a year of unprecedented international activism around racist police violence and renewed public scrutiny on exorbitant police budgets, the Mayor’s recommended budget shows that Boston taxpayers are about to foot the bill for yet another year of harmful policing.

The mayor’s office must systematically transform the nature of police funding in Boston by committing to strong reforms in police union contracts, and by explicitly adopting a more conservative interpretation of the overspending exception in the City Charter. Last year, then-Councilor Kim Janey called upon the Mayor to cut the BPD budget by 10 percent; this year, she has the power to that, and more, herself.

Additionally, the Boston City Council must reject Mayor Janey’s recommended budget, instead pushing for a budget that actually divests from police spending beyond just overtime, rejects any new police hires, and truly reinvests in community initiatives.

When it comes to police spending in Boston, we can no longer accept more of the same.


What to do about it:

Where do these data come from?


This analysis benefitted from feedback and input from members of the Muslim Justice League, the Youth Justice and Power Union, and the Building Up People Not Prisons Coalition.


Break Up with the BRIC: Unpacking the Boston Regional Intelligence Center Budget

Explore all of the ACLU of Massachusetts' analysis on policing in the Commonwealth.

On Thursday, July 23, the Boston City Council is holding a hearing on three grants that would collectively approve over $1 million in additional funding to the Boston Police. These taxpayer dollars would go towards installing new surveillance cameras across Boston and funds for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC.

Thursday’s hearing is a re-run from a routine hearing which took place on June 4, in which the Boston City Council was slated to rubber-stamp these three grants - dockets #0408, #0710, and #0831. However, community advocate groups such as the Muslim Justice League rallied, urging the Councilors to be critical of – and ultimately reject – the BPD grants. Ironically, the BRIC representative failed to make an appearance at the hearing and the question of the grant approval was tabled for this future date.

Out-of-control funding of the Boston Police is nothing new -  as discussed in an ACLU of Massachusetts analysis, in FY21 the initially proposed Boston Police budget was $414 million. Ultimately, the Boston City Council still approved $402 million for the BPD, despite thousands of constituents advocating for more substantial budget cuts. 

However, specific scrutiny of the BRIC and its funding is long overdue. In recent years, city, state, and federal legislatures have authorized well over $7 million in funding for the BRIC each year. But due to BPD secrecy surrounding all things BRIC-related, it’s hard to paint a full picture of what the BRIC does with this funding. Indeed, the description of the program on the Boston Police Department website consists of a mere 122 words - so we are forced to consult alternate sources and public records requests to get any details.

A new analysis of public records by the ACLU of Massachusetts takes a closer look at where the BRIC’s money comes from -- and what it’s used for. 

What is the BRIC?

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is home to two federal fusion centers: Department of Homeland Security-funded centers established after September 11th, which facilitate information sharing between local, federal, and state law enforcement. One such center, the Commonwealth Fusion Center, is operated by the Massachusetts State Police, while the second, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC, is operated by the Boston Police Department.

The BRIC operates across the entire Metro Boston Homeland Security Region (MBHSR), which includes Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Quincy, Revere, Somerville, and Winthrop.

Ample and Diverse Funding

According to public records obtained and compiled by the ACLU of Massachusetts, the BRIC is funded by a combination of federal, state, and local budgets and grants.

Specifically, the BRIC receives funding from at least four distinct sources: 

  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)  Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grants
  • Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) yearly allocations, most likely from the DHS FEMA State Homeland Security Grant program
  • Massachusetts state budgets (passed through the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS); line item 8000-1001)
  • City of Boston operating budgets (via the Boston Police Department’s Bureau of Intelligence & Analysis)

 

Bar chart showing the various sources of BRIC funding in FY17, FY18, and FY20.

These four funding streams combined lead to the BRIC receiving approximately  $7-8 million each year in public funds. 

Note that correspondence with the City of Boston revealed that publicly available data for the FY19 BPD Bureau of Intelligence & Analysis budget is incorrect due to a “posting error”, and so FY19 is excluded from all figures.

Additionally, it’s important to note that due to the lack of transparency, these four sources might not encompass all of the funding coming into the BRIC. For instance, a FY21 report of BPD contracts shows $4 million in payments for “intelligence analysts” to Centra Technologies between 2018 and 2021, likely working at the BRIC. If so, the BRIC budget may indeed be millions of dollars greater than what we are able to report today.

Who’s on the payroll?

How many people do work for the BRIC – and get their salaries from its budgeted funds? Ten? Sixty? It’s difficult to know. 

Expense reports reveal at least 41 employees received training from the BRIC between 2017 and 2019 - but 10 of these names do not appear on the City of Boston payroll for those years.

Records show that the BRIC has some dedicated employees: in FY20, the personnel budget for the BPD’s Bureau of Intelligence and Analysis - whose sole charge seems to be the management of the BRIC - was $4.3 million. And in 2019, BRIC expense reports show $1.8 million in payments towards contracted “Intelligence Analysts” through companies such as Centra Technology, The Computer Merchant, and Computer and Engineering Services, Inc. (now Trillium Technical). But would this $1.8 million support 7 analysts making $250k per year? 30 analysts at $60k? The records do not provide clarity on this point.

Finally, confusion around one of the grants being discussed at Thursday’s hearing, proposed in docket #0408, further epitomizes the BRIC’s financial obfuscation around its payroll. The docket formally proposes $850,000 in grant funding to go towards “technology and protocols.” However in discussion at the June 4 hearing it was revealed that, in actuality, part of the grant would go toward hiring 6 new analysts.

By keeping under wraps the roles and job titles of BRIC employees, and even simply the size of the Center, BRIC obstructs transparency, public accountability, and city council oversight.

Hardware and Software Galore

Between 2017 and 2020, BRIC expense reports show the Center spent almost $1.3 million on hardware and software. Thorough review of these reports reveals exorbitant spending: on software of all flavors, scary surveillance technologies, frivolous tech gadgets, and some obscure mysteries.

A number of the expenses are clearly for surveillance cameras and devices, including $106,700 in orders for “single pole concealment cameras”. These pole cameras were bought from Kel-Tech Tactical Concealments, LLC, a company which also supplied the BRIC with some truly dystopian concealment devices such as a “Cable splice boot concealment” ($10,900), a  “ShopVac camera system” ($5,250), and a “Tissue box concealment” ($4,900). These purchases imply the BRIC is hiding cameras in tissue boxes, vacuum cleaners, and even electrical cables.

Some of the charges on the report are just too vague to interpret. This includes the largest hardware/software charge in the entire report: $164,199 paid to Carousel Industries for “BRIV A/V Upgrade per Bid Event”. There’s $36,997 in “Engineering Support”, paid to PJ Systems Inc. and $15,606 in a “C45529 CI Technologies Contrac[t]”, paid to CI Technologies. And concerningly, there is a cumulative $16,200 in charges described simply as “(1 Year) of Unlimited” paid to CovertTrack Group Inc. – a company which also supplied the BRIC with a “Stealth 4 Basic Tracking Devic[e]” to the tune of $7,054.

When it comes to computing hardware, there’s no skimping either. Reports show over $200,000 in expenses for servers, and over $67,000 for various laptops. And apparently the BRIC prefers Apple products - judging by the $10,000 they spent on iPad pros, almost $1,000 on Apple Pencils, and $367 on Apple TVs.

Yet the most indulgent spending is on software. Between 2017 and 2020, the BRIC purchased at least 13 specialized software products for intelligence analysis, crime tracking, public records access, device extraction, and more. 

Software Use BRIC Expenses 2017-2020
IBM i2 “Insight analysis” $124,852
CrimeView Dashboard Crime analysis, mapping and reporting $58,009
Accurint  Public records searches $32,803
Esri Enterprise Geospatial analysis $27,000
Thomson Reuters’ CLEAR Public records searches $25,322
CrimNtel GIS Crime analysis, mapping and reporting $21,016
Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) Interface Emergency response $16,387
Cellebrite Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED) Ultimate 4PC Device data extraction $12,878
CaseInfo Case management $10,508
NearMap Geospatial analysis $9,995
ViewCommander-NVR Surveillance camera recording $3,778
eSpatial Geospatial analysis $3,650
XRY Logical & Physical Device data extraction $2,981

And worse, there is redundancy between the products - the BRIC purchased three different geospatial analysis products, two public records search products, and two device data extraction products. 

This smorgasbord of tools begs the question: What, if any, supervisory procedures exist within the BRIC to prevent irresponsible spending of taxpayer dollars on expensive, duplicative software? 

And furthermore, some of these public records databases give users immense power to access residential, financial, communication, and familial data about almost any person in the country. So who, if anyone, oversees the use of powerful surveillance databases like Accurint and CLEAR, to ensure they aren’t being used to violate basic rights and spy on ex-girlfriends?


From a history of First Amendment violations in Boston, to their role in threatening local immigrant students with deportation, to a 2012 bipartisan Congressional report concluding fusion centers such as the BRIC have been unilaterally ineffective at preventing terrorism, there is much evidence in support of the BRIC being wholly defunded. But at the very least, the Boston City Council must end the practice of writing blank checks for the Boston Police to continue excessive and unscrutinized spending of taxpayer dollars.

The Boston City Council must reject the additional $1 million in funding to the Boston Police being proposed in these three grants. To learn more about the BRIC, the proposed grants, and to urge the City Council to reject them, we encourage you to:

  • Consult the Muslim Justice League Toolkit to Get the BRIC Out of Boston
  • Sign a petition telling Boston City Councilors to reject BRIC-related grants before Tuesday, July 28
  • Submit written testimony for the BRIC budget hearing before 9:30 AM on Saturday, July 25, telling Boston City Councilors to reject BRIC-related grants

Boston City Council Hearing on Proposed Ordinance to Ban Face Surveillance

Boston City Council Hearing on Proposed Ordinance to Ban Face Surveillance

On June 9, 2020, the Boston City Council's Committee on Government Operations held a hearing to discuss Councilor Michelle Wu and Councilor Ricardo Arroyo's proposed ordinance to ban face surveillance in Boston's municipal government. Dozens of advocates, academics, and community members testified at the hearing.

Below is a sample of some of the written testimonies submitted in support of banning face surveillance in Boston.

Organizations

ACLU of Massachusetts

Algorithmic Justice League

National Lawyers Guild - Massachusetts Chapter

Surveillance Technology Oversight Project 

Boston Public Library Professional Staff Association

Library Freedom Project

Boston Teachers Union

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Fight For the Future

Student Immigrant Movement

Digital Fourth

Academics, advocates, and community members

Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger

Dr. Nita Bharti

Nora Paul-Schultz

Christie Dougherty

Dylan Phelan

Louis Roe

Leilani Stacy

Jennifer Jordan

Sean Kelley

 


Bond Bill Funds Prisons and Police over Education

Editor's Note: Today, the Senate Bonding Committee gave S2579: the General Government Bond Bill (previously H.4733) a favorable report. Last week, the committee on Senate Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets concluded hearings on this bill. We are glad to see that the committee added limiting language to ensure that the $150 million authorization for public safety facilities would not be spent on building new prisons or jails. As the bill advances to Senate Ways and Means, we hope to see more amendments that prioritize investment in communities rather than policing and prisons.

What is the “General Government Bond Bill” and why should we care?

Last week the committee on Senate Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets concluded hearings on H.4733, the General Government Bond Bill (originally H.4708). This Bond Bill intends to finance general governmental infrastructure of the Commonwealth around “public safety, information technology and data and cyber-security improvements.” 

Bond bills are borrowing bills which pass on not just debt to future generations but also values. Given the huge disparities the pandemic has both exposed and created through mandatory remote learning, the top priority for any debt for future taxpayers should in fact be their current education. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how crucial basic broadband infrastructure is to ensure equitable access to education. Education Commissioner Jeff Riley testified last month to the need of $50 million to support MA school districts to reach students without internet access (9% of students) or exclusive use of a device (15% of students). 

Instead, this bill allows for at least $270 million to build prisons, acquire police cruisers and other equipment for the Department of Corrections. The events of the last few weeks have shown the unnecessary, unwise, and unjust investment in the criminal legal system -- a system that over-polices, over-prosecutes, and over-incarcerates Black and Brown communities in the Commonwealth. The bill’s funding priorities need to be flipped. 

As the Boston advocacy organization Families for Justice as Healing states in their call to action against H.4733, "The Commonwealth already spends more money per capita on law enforcement and incarceration than almost any other state. Communities need capital money for critical infrastructure projects like housing, carte facilities, parks, schools, treatment centers, healing centers, community centers, and spaces for art, sports, and culture."

Why are we still investing in police and prisons? 

Over the last week, the world has watched as protests against police brutality and unaccountability have been met with further use of excessive force on protestors. As we live through the historic Black Lives Matter movement, the ACLU of Massachusetts (ACLUM) has joined the calls of Black and Brown-led organizations to divest from police in favor of investments in systems that support, feed, and protect people. 

There have been demands from across the country to defund police departments, with the Minnesota City Council declaring its intent to disband the police department all together. The timing of further funding of police departments is incomprehensible at this watershed moment for racial justice across the country and in the midst of an economic freefall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Bond bill H.4733 does not meet this moment. In testimony to the Senate Committee on the Bond Bill, ACLUM strongly opposed line item 8000-2025, which would authorize an enormous amount of borrowing to build prisons. Families for Justice as Healing also opposed this line item, testifying that "significant decarceration is possible and further decarceration is doable and practical under current law, and at a cost-savings to the commonwealth."

ACLUM also opposed line item 8000-0703, authorizing the borrowing of $30 million for the purchase of Department of Corrections and Executive Office of Public Safety and Security for equipment and vehicles, and line item 8000-2024, authorizing the borrowing of $92 million for the purchase of police cruisers. (This is enough to put over $40,000 towards a new or improved car for all 2,199 Massachusetts State Police employees.)

Even without bond funds, police departments across the Commonwealth and the country are incredibly well funded. As previous ACLUM analysis of the City of Boston budget on Data for Justice shows, compared to the budgets of other Boston City departments (and cabinets), the Boston Police budget is exponentially higher than that of community focused organizations like Library, Neighborhood Development and Office of Arts and Culture. 

Why aren’t we investing in actual information technology infrastructure? 

Instead of authorizing new debt to build prisons and increase police budgets, we should be investing in information technology to support educational equity throughout the Commonwealth. In that way, this bond bill could truly reflect values we want to pass down to our children. 

At present, the line item 1599-7064 is the only one which directly does this, authorizing $40 million to help close the digital divide for students in the Commonwealth. Certain emergency measures have been taken by school districts to enable transition to remote learning such as tablets and free access to assistive technology. However a bill that is intended to finance the general governmental infrastructure of the Commonwealth, and in particular to provide assistance to public school districts for remote learning environments, should invest in more than $40 million in state-wide digital infrastructure to permanently close the digital divide. 

What exactly do we need to invest in? 

Data from the United States Census American Community Survey show that about 8% of households either do not have a computer, or if they do, do not have access to the internet at all. Furthermore, more than 1 million Massachusetts residents (> 15%) do not have a fixed broadband internet connection. 

As reported in a previous analysis by the ACLU of Massachusetts, lower rates of internet access or broadband correlate with lower income, both in terms of macroscopic geography (e.g. southern and western Massachusetts), and low-income neighborhoods within cities. 8 cities in Massachusetts have at least 30% of households without cable, DSL or fiber Internet subscriptions in 2018 - Fall River, Springfield, Lowell, Lawrence, Worcester, Lynn, New Bedford and Brockton. 

Taking a closer look at Brockton for example: of the households in the lowest two income categories, less than 50 percent have broadband internet access. This is similar to the pattern of better connected cities such as Newton. Here too, about 50 percent of households in the lowest two income categories do not have broadband. Thus from the perspective of a household, one's income is a stronger indicator of access to the internet, even if one is living in an area which generally has robust high speed internet connectivity

Divest - Reinvest 

Bond bill H.4733 singles out certain cities for specific projects. Brockton, for example, is slated to get $2,000,000 for enhanced security camera systems at public housing buildings Campello and Sullivan towers. Instead of investment in broadband, Lawrence, which ranks 28th on the list of 623 worst connected cities in the country, is going to get $2,500,000 for police cruiser technology.Thankfully Springfield, ranked 24 on that list, is slated to get $7,500,000 for a citywide fiber network. 

Beyond Education Commissioner Jeff Riley’s testimony on the need of $50 million for remote elementary and secondary education, State and community colleges are in dire need of funding as well. The community colleges’ chief financial officers recently tallied the costs of additional information technology at nearly $17 million.

Rather than expanding the racist carceral state, we should use this Bond Bill to create equitable digital infrastructure to even out the playing field for the future generation.