Boston police prohibit purchase of surveillance equipment; elected officials demand an end to secrecy

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On Tuesday, Boston city councilors peppered Boston Police Department leaders with questions about their purchase of $627,000 in controversial surveillance equipment using a hidden kitty.

Councilor Julia Mejia requested the hearing after she and other councilors said they first learned of the purchase in December when WBUR asked about the transaction.

“Our city’s work must not be done behind closed doors or without the approval of the voice of the people. This era of secrecy must end,” Mejia said.

The hearing follows an investigation by WBUR and ProPublica which found that Boston police used proceeds from the 2019 civilian property forfeiture to purchase a cell site simulator, also known as a ‘stingray’. . The suitcase-sized device tracks real-time cell phone usage and location.

“This age of secrecy must end.”

Julia Mejia

The pool of cash used by Boston police to purchase the equipment is made up of assets and cash seized in connection with alleged crimes, and the funds are spent largely at the discretion of police chiefs.

During the hearing, Felipe Colon, a Boston police superintendent, described several instances where the department has used technology in so-called urgent or emergency circumstances, which do not require a warrant.

Civil rights advocates say warrantless use of the technology violates privacy laws.

Colon told advisers the device had saved lives, including suicidal people and victims of human trafficking.

“The value of this equipment, you can’t put a price on it,” he said. “We have strict policies, strict guidelines as to when we deploy this technology.”

However, BPD previously told WBUR that there were no guidelines for using the Cell Site Simulator.

When advisers asked about policies for removing cellphone identifying information collected from bystanders who are not targeted in an investigation, Colon admitted the department had none. He said BPD would formulate one.

Community and civil rights advocates also testified at the hearing. Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, said the civil forfeiture system was ripe for abuse.

“People should be concerned that it’s law enforcement that seizes those assets and then it’s law enforcement that spends those assets,” Ahmad said.

Boston police said they reported some expenses to the federal government, but advisers requested additional documents.

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