BPD Commissioner William Gross has had a bad few days. Last week, ACLU Massachusetts sued the city of Boston for using “a system—nicknamed the ‘gang packet’—which awards points for choice of clothes and social media selfies, and [is] used to designate ‘gang affiliation’ without any accompanying allegations of criminal activity,” according a Guardian article by DigBoston contributing writer Sarah Betancourt.
In response, Gross had a meltdown on his personal Facebook account—accusing the ACLU of being “paper warriors” who “turn a blind eye to ‘atrocities,’” according to the Boston Herald.
His attack was weak. And it was off the wall. He said that the civil liberties organization was nowhere to be found when the BPD has done tough stuff like working in East Boston and El Salvador to find ways to bring the international MS-13 gang to heel. He then said that ACLU did not have the “‘common decency’ to call with condolences after a city cop was shot in the face.”
“No ACLU when officers are shot. No ACLU when we help,” Gross continued.
ACLU Mass Executive Director Carol Rose then fired back the following statement, also in the Herald:
Commissioner Gross’ accusations appear to be nothing more than an attempt to divert attention from the serious issues raised by an ACLU lawsuit that seeks to uncover whether the Boston Police Department is unfairly and arbitrarily targeting people of color. … In order to make Boston a safe city for all its residents, we must meaningfully address discriminatory policing, and confront the role the gang database plays in the lives of young Black and Latinx people in our city.
Naturally, I’m going to side with the ACLU on this one.
Because, first, civil liberties lawyers are civil liberties lawyers and cops are cops. So, right away, Gross is off base in attacking the ACLU for doing its job. Which is to defend civil rights for all American citizens and immigrants to these shores. Including putative gang members. No surprise he’s doing that, though. When faced with a serious critique, it makes sense that he finds it easier to toss red meat to the “Blue Lives Matter”/“cops can do no wrong” crowd than to try to refute ACLU claims head on. Because he knows it’s going to be tough to win such a debate. Especially after the ACLU demonstrated that BPD PR about its being a kinder, gentler praetorian guard was less than truthful in a landmark 2015 report that “found racial disparities in the BPD’s stops-and-frisks that could not be explained by crime or other non-race factors.” Something local police, and their commissioner most of all, cannot have forgotten.
Second, cops are public servants and government employees. It’s therefore up to government officials to issue formal condolences when police officers get injured or killed in the line of duty. Which officials like Mayor Marty Walsh—who publicly supported Gross as this article went to press—do all the time. Private citizens like ACLU staff can send their best wishes at such times or not. It’s neither required nor expected of them.
Third, the fact that ACLU observers may be present where police are working, something that particularly irked Gross, is no surprise at all. They’re doing their jobs—which sometimes involves watching cops to make sure they’re not violating anyone’s civil liberties. While the cops are doing theirs—which all too often does result in civil liberties violations. Like tarring someone as a gang member in a database based on super sketchy criteria. And then trying to pretend that it’s no big deal.
Finally, if Commissioner Gross wants to trash the ACLU on such ludicrous grounds, then he has to accept that other people—like this journalist—are going to come back at him with facts.
For example, the fact that police cannot defeat gangs. Especially in the black and Latino/a communities under discussion in this dustup. Even assuming they want to. Which is not a good assumption, since a primary rationale for the outsized police budgets of this era is the threat of gang violence.
Cops can’t stop gangs because myriad problems lead to their formation. Problems that sociologists and anthropologists and psychologists have studied exhaustively for over 100 years. Problems of family. Problems of intergenerational networks. Problems of communication. Problems of geography. Problems of education. Problems of substance abuse. Problems of incarceration. And worst of all, the problems of structural racism and entrenched economic inequality.
Racism and poverty. Problems that at their heart are problems of capitalism. A political economic system based on economic inequality… and, in these United States, on structural racism. A system propped up by increasingly militarized police forces. Whose job, before all other jobs, is to protect the rich and powerful. And to repress the poor and marginalized. For fear they should rise up and demand a better deal. As they have done on numerous occasions in American history.
So, maybe Commissioner Gross should think twice before taking cheap shots at an organization whose only “failing” is trying to protect disenfranchised communities from the very police who claim they are there to do the same thing.
Because he may find that the conversation moves in a direction that he doesn’t like.
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.