By John Ruch
The Boston Police Department embodies the Surveillance Age’s chilling twin principles: more power to spy on law-abiding citizens, and less accountability for doing it. That’s what we at the Jamaica Plain Gazette and Mission Hill Gazette have learned as our attempts to investigate police spying abuses are stymied by the department’s flouting of state public records laws.
The BPD headquarters houses the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, an anti-terrorism spy agency supported by the state and federal governments. BRIC is one of many such centers around the country. A bipartisan U.S. Senate committee in 2012 criticized these centers as wasteful dangers to civil liberties that have failed to uncover any terrorist plots. In BRIC’s case, that has meant spying on lawful protesters while at the same time failing to collecting any information about the Boston Marathon bombers prior to the crime.
BRIC’s local spying was revealed in recent years by lawsuits and FOIA requests by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the National Lawyers Guild and the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. These efforts forced BRIC to release spy files from certain years. In 2007, for example, BRIC filed a report on an anti-war rally inside a Jamaica Plain church, inexplicably labeling it a “criminal act” by “extremists.” Among the speakers were famed peace activist Cindy Sheehan and a Boston city councilor. Another was Mélida Arredondo, wife of prominent peace activist Carlos Arredondo, who later became a rescue hero at the marathon bombing.
A Gazette review of these BRIC documents found extensive spying on First Amendment-protected activities in 2011. BRIC tracked the Occupy Boston protests — spearheaded by Jamaica Plain residents — and documented anything it thought remotely connected to those protests, including yoga classes. (Among its sources were the Gazette’s calendar listings.) BRIC’s attention spread to unrelated activities, including Northeastern University academic events and anti-gentrification protests targeting a grocery store.
There is also reason to believe this spying triggered the curious arrests of peaceful local demonstrators whose cases were later dismissed or settled — including that of Carlos Arredondo. Local activists said BRIC’s spying scares them and creates a chilling effect. Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy put BRIC’s surveillance on his 2013 annual “Muzzle Awards” for free-speech violations.
To determine the full extent of BRIC’s local spying, the Gazettes this summer filed a public records request with BPD, the custodian of BRIC records. We sought all BRIC spy documents from 2005 to the present containing the names of our neighborhoods.
While state law requires a response within 10 days, BPD took 109 days to respond. Its response was a blanket refusal, claiming all such documents fall under an “investigative materials” exemption, despite the previous releases.
The Gazettes recently refiled the request at the advice of the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Office. BPD is again in violation of state law, having failed to respond for 17 days and counting as of this writing. We have asked the Secretary of State’s Office to demand BPD produce the documents.
Our neighborhoods have already seen BRIC and BPD encroach on four of the five First Amendment freedoms: religion, speech, assembly and petitioning. And now we see BPD violating state law to avoid further scrutiny from the fifth: our press.
Ruch is the editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette and Mission Hill Gazette in Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.