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The Mapping Project

Boston Police

The colonial origins of Boston policing

Boston's police department was based on the London Metropolitan Police. As Alex Vitale writes, the London Metropolitan Police were created for the purpose of "managing disorder and protecting the propertied classes from the rabble." the London Metropolitan Police achieved this objective using methods and tactics developed in Ireland, where the English exercised colonial rule. SIr Robert Peel, who formed the London Metropolitan Police, "developed his ideas while managing the British colonial occupation of Ireland and seeking new forms of social control that would allow for continued political and economic domination in the face of growing insurrections, riots, and political uprisings." As Vitale explains, London's idea of policing "was imported into Boston in 1838 and spread through Northern cities over the next few decades. That model had to adapt to the United States, where massive immigration and rapid industrialization created an even more socially and politically chaotic environment." Boston's politicians used the police "to manage riots and the widespread social disorder associated with the working classes," such as the Broad Street Riot of 1837, the year after which then Boston Mayor Samuel Elliot decided "to create a professional civilian police force."

Boston's record of racist policing and counterinsurgency, past and present

Boston has a long history of racist policing and political repression, from its contemporary melding of "anti-gang" and "anti-terrorism" units, to the creation of the BRIC 'Intelligence Fusion Center.' Some major points along the way include the following:

In 1993, the Boston Police Department created its Youth Violence Strike Force (YVSF), commonly known as the "Gang Unit." (Boston Police Department Rules and Procedures, Rule 335, March 23, 2017.) Under Rule 335 of the Boston Police Department's Rules and Procedures, the YVSF assesses members of the community for membership in "gangs" and enters information about "gang members" and "gang associates" into a Gang Database, based on a point scoring system. The criteria both for gangs and for gang membership are broad and include wearing certain types of clothing, frequenting specific areas, and having certain associates. The YVSF is itself a multi-agency force, "a special city-wide police operation composed of city, state, and MBTA police who make arrests on outstanding warrants" (Commonwealth v. Ryan, 1996 Mass. Super. , December 19, 1996).

The Boston Police Department's Youth Violence Strike Force encourages members of criminalized communities to cooperate with the police (so-called "community policing") by spying on each other. YVSF's infamous "Operation Ceasefire," implemented in 1996 in Boston, exemplifies this practice. Developed with the help of criminologist David Kennedy, then at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Operation Ceasefire used so-called "targeted deterrence," leading "police develop 'hot lists' of young people they believe are more likely to engage in violent crime, based on a host of sometimes secret factors like prior arrests, involvement in foster care, and even school performance." As Alex Vitale describes, these targeted youth "are called into meetings with local police and community leaders and threatened with intensive surveillance and enforcement if the gun violence doesn’t stop." Such "'call ins' are made possible in part because many of these young people are on probation or parole for past offenses." Operation Ceasefire was also applied in New York City, where entire communities were punished if gun violence had occurred after a "call in" -- an example of collective punishment tactics that are widely used by colonial police forces, including Israel's. Yet Operation Ceasefire, often described as the "Boston Miracle," is still paraded by the media (e.g., Vox and NPR) as a case of "good" policing based on community relationships that should be emulated, with David Kennedy still consulted as an expert.

An examination of the activities of the Youth Violence Strike Force in Massachusetts legal cases shows that YVSF is a major source of FIO (Field Interrogation Observation) reports, funneling members of racialized communities into the Gang Database. Since FIOs can be generated whenever "police have an interaction with a member of the community, or when they make certain observations of people in the community" (Commonwealth v. Gray, 463 Mass. 731, Supreme Court November 15, 2012) they allow for constant, uncontrolled surveillance and intelligence gathering. Criteria within the point scoring system for entering people into the gang database include: "if they're identified with a known gang member on more than two occasions," and "if an individual frequents a particular area associated with that gang and may begin wearing particular clothing, certain colors, exhibiting hand gestures or signs" (Ibid.). The Boston Police Department has released some information on its field interrogation observations for statistical purposes, and the BPD's own tables show that FIOs are disproportionately focused on Black people and predominantly Black neighborhoods. Multiple local media outlets have reported on this racial targeting, including the Boston Globe and the Bay State Banner. (For more on Boston's Gang Database, see separate entry for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center.)

In 2000, Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans used "intelligence reports that anarchists and anti-globalization protesters were planning to organize and conduct violent riots surrounding the 'Biotech 2000'" to justify the creation of a "Special Tactical Force" within the Boston Police Department. The BPD's Special Tactical Force consisted of units from its Youth Violence Strike Force, its Drug Control Unit, and its Mobile Operations Patrol. (City of Boston v. Boston Police Patrolmen's Ass'n, 2004 Mass. Super., April 1, 2004, Decided.)

In 2003, members of the New England Committee to Defend Palestine (NECDP) obtained through FOIA requests documentation of extensive BPD surveillance of political activism. BPD surveillance exposed through these FOIAs included 12 video tapes of pro-Palestine, anti-war, and immigrant rights rallies recorded between May 2001 and December 2002, as well s also still photographs taken inside the Brookline Courthouse focusing on the individual faces of people doing court solidarity for Amer Jubran, a member of the NECDP. (See also separate entry on Brookline Police).

In 2004, when the Democratic National Convention was held in Boston, the Boston Police Department rolled out a system of high-definition cameras across the city. The BPD also received military style vehicles and new communications systems in preparation for the event, which they retained after the DNC left town. ("Boston to be blanketed by surveillance cameras during the DNC", Associated Press, July 18 2004; "Police sitting on DNC weapons arsenal that wasn't needed", Associated Press, August 24, 2004.) During the DNC itself, virtually the entire Boston Police force was put on the streets, supported by thousands of MA State Police, federal police, and National Guard troops. Protesters were given a small "free speech zone," behind fences with coils of razor wire, as the only area within sight of the convention where protest would be allowed. Preparations also included training for Boston police officers provided by "Israeli suicide terrorism specialists and crowd control tacticians" ("Boston police develops operational plan for Democratic Convention," Associated Press State & Local Wire, May 9, 2004).

Immediately following the departure of the DNC, the Boston Police Department launched "Operation Neighborhood Shield." According to the BPD's own press release about the second night of the operation:

Following the Unified Command model that worked so effectively during the DNC, the Boston Police and our law enforcement partners in the Massachusetts State Police, MBTA Police, FBI, ATF, DEA, Boston Municipal and Housing Police and commitments from US Attorney Michael Sullivan, Attorney General Tom Reilly and Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, are pleased to announce a successful second night of Operation Neighborhood Shield. Enhanced patrols, aimed at sending a clear message to the criminal element that we are in charge were very effective. ... From Friday, August 6th to Sunday, August 8th, Operation Neighborhood Shield netted a total of 41 arrests, 124 Field Interrogation/Observation reports, 183 Moving Violations, 5 firearms and one knife recovered. 

Statistics for Operation Neighborhood Shield in the BPD's 2004 annual report listed the following among its benchmarks for success: "Arrests 440; FIO’s 2840; Moving Citations 1572; Recovered Firearms 43; Recovered Knives 6" (Boston Police Department 2004 Annual Report, p. 26).

In 2005, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) was established under the management of the Boston Police Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Analysis. According to the BIA website, BRIC was established as "a major urban area fusion center whose mission is to reduce crime and prevent acts of terrorism throughout the Metro Boston Homeland Security Region (MBHSR)" and "to coordinate efforts of the nine communities in the MBHSR." (See: here) These nine communities are Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Quincy, Revere, Somerville, and Winthrop. Upon its creation, BRIC was also placed in charge of Boston's "Gang Database." (Boston Police Department Rules and Procedures, Rule 335, March 23, 2017.) (See also separate entry on BRIC.)

In 2013, after the Boston Marathon Bombings, Boston Police commissioner Ed Davis made references to travel to Israel and the involvement of Israelis in training Boston Police as part of Boston's ongoing security program. Davis spoke specifically of travel funded by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) for the purpose of "visiting police officials in Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian authority" ("Hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee Subject: 'The Boston Bombings: A First Look'," May 9, 2013). Under the aegis of PERF, Davis participated in the "Middle East Policing Project." (see separate entry on PERF).

Beginning in 2014 (the year of the uprising against police violence in Ferguson, MO), BRIC began using Geofeedia software to monitor social media. According to a report released by the ACLU in 2018, BRIC used "terms associated with political activism, like '#blacklivesmatter' and 'protest'" as well as "various basic Arabic words used in everyday conversations and the hashtag '#muslimlivesmatter,' suggesting that BPD considered Muslims as a group to be legitimate targets of surveillance." (See also separate entry on BRIC)

In 2015, Boston Police and FBI agents from the Joint Terrorism Taskforce dressed in plainclothes surrounded Usaamah Rahim in a parking lot in the Boston neighborhood Roslindale and shot him dead. SWAT teams and FBI agents invaded the house of Rahim's relative, David Wright, with flash bang grenades, surrounding Wright with military assault rifles and interrogating him for more than ten hours in his home before arresting him. According to Rahim's mother, they were targeted and profiled "for being African American and for being Muslim." (Mass Action Against Police Brutality Streamcast: The Usaamah Rahim Case Free David Wright! 9/11/2020. See in particular the testimony beginning at 31:00.) The Boston Police Department's murder of Usaamah Rahim is part of a pattern of police murders of Black men in Boston, similar to those that have taken place across the country, including the shooting of Burrell Ramsey-White during a traffic stop in 2012 and the shooting of Terrence Colman at his home in 2016. (To learn more, see the work of Mass Action Against Police Brutality.)

In 2020, Boston Police officials attacked demonstrators in downtown Boston protesting the police murder of George Floyd. Body camera footage revealed "police officers bragging about attacking protesters, targeting nonviolent demonstrators for violence and possible arrest, discussing arrest quotas and the use of cars as weapons, and multiple instances of excessive force and liberal use of pepper spray."

Boston Police in the wider police network: police organizations in Massachusetts

As in the rest of the country, police operating in Massachusetts include local city police forces, county sheriffs departments, state police, and federal police forces, as well as special police forces connected with specific institutions, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Police, and university police forces. With the high concentration of universities in Massachusetts, and especially in the Boston metro region, university police play a significant role in broader police violence and repression of local communities. Licensed under the MA State Police, university police possess full police powers in surrounding communities, but have historically claimed immunity from public scrutiny under Freedom of Information Act and public documents requests as private organizations (see separate entry on Harvard University Police Department).

Police in Massachusetts are networked through US Department of Homeland Security initiatives, including DHS 'intelligence fusion centers,' such as the the Boston Regional Intelligence Center under the BPD and the Commonwealth Intelligence Fusion Center under the MA State Police (see separate entries on each), Joint Terrorism Task forces, multi-agency groups such as the BPD's Youth Violence Strike Force (YVSF), SWAT teams, and professional organizations such as the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) and other 'law enforcement councils' (LECs) which operate partly in shadow as semi-private organizations but are directly involved in police militarization (see separate entry on NEMLEC).

Police unions, such as the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association (BPPA), the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, and others, also play a central role in organizing local police and insulating them from accountability for their violence and repression against local community members.

Police in Massachusetts on all levels (local, county, state, federal, and semi-private institutional) have participated in trainings in Israel, as well as in domestic initiatives such as Urban Shield that have included Israeli consultants in simulated military exercises in US cities. These trainings and initiatives should be understood as police preparation for large scale urban warfare, under cover of "counterterrorism." Both domestically and globally, the "war against terror" has taken over from the fight against "communist insurgency" as a catch-all for developing police forces as instruments of repression focused especially on the total policing of colonized people, including racialized communities inside the US.

The "Office of Public Safety": militarizing police in the service of empire

At the end of the 1950s, in the context of the Cold War and the global rise of anti-colonial movements, the US developed a counterinsurgency doctrine that identified police as a "first line of defense" against what it called "communist insurgency." A now declassified state department document from 1962 gives the official theory as follows:

"To maintain internal order, most governments depend primarily on police which constitute the first line of defense against subversion and insurgency. They are the ones on whom the internal security burden falls in the pre-insurrectionary stage. Police are normally trained and equipped to deal with conspiracy, subversion, and the minor forms of violence. They are also a sensitive point of contact between the government and its citizens, close to focal points of unrest, and acceptable as keepers of order over a long period of time.
Where feasible and politically desirable, the U.S. will therefore provide equipment, training, and technical assistance to the police forces of friendly foreign countries, particularly those threatened with subversion and insurgency."

(U.S. Overseas Internal Defense Policy, from a top-secret memorandum of Maxwell Taylor, 13 August 1962.)

In November of 1962, the US created the Office of Public Safety (OPS) to develop and administer "Public Safety Programs" around the world, which were funded through USAID. These programs brought in US police and US intelligence officials as advisors to train foreign police forces friendly to US interests in counterinsurgency. Regardless of their language of the official doctrine--which stressed standard components of low intensity conflict theory, such as the need to allow political expression, create room for social reform etc.--these Public Safety Programs provided equipment and training for violent repression, including the widespread use of assassination, torture and mass imprisonment to police forces worldwide. Officially, the programs presented police as preferable to the military because they were, allegedly, less openly a force of political repression and better at preventing conflict from reaching a military phase in which the struggle would be between an unpopular government and a popular revolution. In practice, however, the programs militarized police in support of interests and objectives of US empire in countries worldwide.

In addition to "in country" programs, the US also created an International Police Academy, which brought foreign police forces together with US police and CIA advisors for training in political surveillance and repression.

For the Office of Public Safety (OPS), the Public Safety Program in South Vietnam was a major focus of attention. Partly as a result of the movement against the US war in Vietnam, in 1974 hearings were held in Congress that exposed many of the atrocities conducted under the Public Safety Program in South Vietnam. Senator James Abourezk had a report by Michael T. Klare from 1971 read into the Congressional record. Among many other aspects of the program as described in the report, which included the creation of 650 checkpoints across the country, OPS created the National Identity Registration Program. According to Klare's report:

"... every Vietnamese 15 years or older is required to register with the Saigon government and carry identification cards; anyone caught without proper ID cards is considered a 'VC suspect' and subject to imprisonment or worse. At the time of registration, a full set of fingerprints is obtained from each applicant, and information on his or her political beliefs is recorded. By 1971, 12,000,000 persons are to have been reached by this identification/registration program. 'Once completed,' AID explains, 'the identification system will provide for a national repository of fingerprints and photographs and biological data. It will be one of the most complete national identification systems in the world, and one of the most badly needed.'"

(Congressional Record, Senate, June 21, 1974)

US police and urban warfare

Among the "safety advisors" responsible for the OPS Public Safety Program in South Vietnam, was Frank Walton, former Los Angeles Deputy Chief of Police.

Los Angeles itself has played a significant role in the militarization of US police for urban warfare against racialized communities in the US. The Los Angeles Police Department was one of the first to develop military style SWAT teams and to employ them routinely in the urban context. Most histories ascribe the development of SWAT teams to LA Police Chief Daryl Gates, as a response to the Watts Uprising in 1965. Gates employed SWAT teams for urban warfare against the Black Panthers in 1969 and 1974 ("The rise of the SWAT team in American policing," New York Times, September 8, 2014). Former LAPD lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, who offers services as a police consultant, claims a slightly earlier origin: "The first SWAT unit was created in the city of Delano, California, in the 1960s in response to the farmworker uprisings led by the then-new UFW headed by César Chávez." (See: here.)

Los Angeles is also the first jurisdiction to use a computerized gang database: "The first computerized gang reporting database was created in 1987 by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. A year later, the California Legislature became the first state to enact comprehensive gang legislation called the STEP Act (Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act), which included support to expand Los Angeles’ database statewide. The new database, Cal-gang, enabled police departments throughout California to feed data collected from local law enforcement gang databases into a state repository."

Regarding LA's implementation of its gang database, Mike Davis writes:

It is now clear that one of the main functions of the 'antigang' dragnets such as the LAPD's Operation Hammer has been to create a rap sheet on virtually every young Black male in the city. Data are not simply being kept on people arrested, but rather people are being detained solely in order to generate new data. Thanks to massive street sweeps, the gang roster maintained by the LAPD and sheriffs has grown from 14,000 to 150,000 files over the last five years. This accumulation has allowed the district attorney, Ira Reiner, to make the hyperbolic claim that 47 percent of all young Black males in L.A. County are active gang members. Needless to say, these files are not only employed in identifying suspects, but have also become a virtual blacklist. Under California's recent 'Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act' (STEP), for instance, membership in a gang presumably as proven by inclusion in one of these data bases, can become a separate felony charge.

(Mike Davis, Uprising and Repression in LA from Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising, edited by Robert Gooding-Williams, Routledge, 1993.)

The very name of the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act once again makes explicit the political context behind policing racialized communities: this policing was a form of urban warfare. At the time of STEP's passage, Los Angelos City Council member Zev Yaroslavsky, one of its chief supporters, described Los Angeles as "worse than Beirut," a comparison which emphasizes the conceptual tie between domestic policing and foreign occupation. ("Police deployed to curb gangs in Los Angeles," New York Times, April 9, 1988.)

The implementation of LA's gang database as a means of collecting identity and biometric data on the entire Black male population of LA has a striking resemblance not only to the National Identity Registration Program used in Vietnam, but to similar programs carried out by the US in the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan (see for example: here), and to the systems Israel uses to monitor and control the movement of Palestinians in historic Palestine.

"Counterterrorism" trainings in Israel

The New England Chapter of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sponsors annual all-expenses-paid delegations to Israel for high-ranking New England police, ICE, FBI, and other security officials, where these officials meet with Israeli military, police, and intelligence agencies, with whom they train and exchange tactics including surveillance, racial profiling, crowd control, and the containment of protests. Based on newspaper articles and ADL press releases, Boston Police Department leaders are known to have taken part in ADL sponsored counterterrorism training trips to Israel in 2011, 2014, and 2016.

In 2018, as these police trips to Israel began to face heightened scrutiny and as other cities in New England were pulling out of the training trips (see: here and here), the city of Boston under Mayor Walsh refused to so much as acknowledge calls from Boston community members to end BPD's continued participation in the trips. In the 2021 election campaign to replace Mayor Walsh, then City Councilor and now Mayor (2021-present) Michelle Wu stated in a candidate questionnaire that she opposed ending the Boston Police Department's participation in police exchanges with foreign military forces. True to this stated opinion, Mayor Wu has made no commitments and has taken no actions to date to end the Boston Police Department's participation in these training trips to Israel.

1 Schroeder Plaza, Boston, MA 02120

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Date generated: May 28, 2022