Image by Tak Toyoshima
With coast-to-coast Black Lives Matter actions and remembrances this past week for the many killed by law enforcement all across America, we thought readers might be especially nauseated to know the lengths to which authorities in Greater Boston go to defend their militarized arsenal. Thanks to a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts recently obtained from the City of Boston, which was in turn shared with DigBoston, the public has a brand new window into excessive defense spending, from spy cameras to urban tanks, and the view is even uglier than some critics imagined.
We spent hours digging through the 46-page “Investment Justification” for the “Boston Urban Area,” which was compiled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) branch of DHS to outline and defend expenditures. In some cases, the report lazily explains spy and other types of programs through which federal authorities funnel millions of dollars to regional and local forces in no more than a couple of sentences. More than anything else, the justification docs show that while spokespeople from the Boston Police Department and other crime-stopping outfits continue to sweet talk a doting media, claiming to be judicious in their militarization, in reality they’re at the center of a drastically metastasizing national armament trend.
If any of this sounds conspiratorial as President Barack Obama slows the flow of grenade launchers and tanks to municipal cops, consider all the other gear that still transfers with regularity between such agencies as DHS and the men and women who patrol our streets. Furthermore, think about the ease with which police obtain these items, some of which are lethal, others of which seem either bizarre or wasteful. The Metro Boston Homeland Security Region (MBHSR), for one, feasts on fed dollars galore, and reports “a multitude of complex and diverse threats that pose high levels of risk to the people and critical infrastructures within its region.” Few would argue that such outfits do stand guard against “terrorism threats with high consequences,” as per their documented justification for funding, but in light of all the resources this robust apparatus consumes, and of how their sophisticated tools and trainings are paid for with public subsidies, the rationale for DHS largesse leaves much to be desired.
- The newly surfaced report is based on in-house law enforcement research, which tends to favor costly militarized answers as opposed to mediative approaches. With information gathered from “the Boston Regional Intelligence Center as well as federal threat reports,” it identifies looming disasters ranging from “blister agents and toxic industrial chemicals” to “biological threats from weaponized aerosol anthrax,” from the disgusting-sounding “weaponized plaque” (we think they mean “plague”) to “zoonotic livestock diseases.” Not scared yet? MBHSR is also tasked with saving us from “vehicle borne improvised explosive devices,” “cyber threats,” “winter storms such as blizzards and ice storms,” and “hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes, extreme heat, tornados, thunderstorms and lightning.”
- Throughout the FEMA report, authors pepper their validation of a homeland security spending spree with boilerplate You’re all gonna die scare tactics. Behold: “The consequences of many of these threats include mass fatalities and injuries, physical damage, economic disruptions, and utility interruptions.”
- Do you remember those menacing urban tanks and tricked out SUVs that police used during protests in Ferguson, Missouri? We’re getting more of them. According to documents, the “MBHSR will embark on developing regional SWAT operations for our UASI region … This project will encompass the Boston SWAT team, Quincy SWAT team, North Metro SWAT team, and the Brookline Special Response Team (SRT) [and] utilize a total of [$707,620] in funding to enhance each of the aforementioned teams with special response vehicles, personal protective gear and training equipment.” We feel safer already.
- Don’t forget Big Brother. In a line defending more than $2 million in spending, we learn “this investment area will seek to enhance the region’s critical infrastructure monitoring system through the enhancement of the existing data network, existing cameras, and the installation of new camera sites (stationary and quick deploy).” To boot, “this project will maintain the existing gunshot/explosion location systems throughout the region through continued system maintenance and will fund expansion to include additional geographic coverage.”
Other acquisitions seem more reasonable. Following the clear lack of coordination between federal agencies and local police departments before and after the Marathon bombing—as you may recall, the dispute over who should have preemptively sniffed out Tamerlan Tsarnaev ended in the FBI and BPD pointing fingers at each other—it may be good news that the government is pumping an additional $1.5 million into “collecting, analyzing, linking, producing and disseminating timely and actionable intelligence related to the public safety and homeland security threat environment.” To their slight credit, said investment is intended to “addresses a gap identified in the BRIC’s 2014 Fusion Center Assessment.” There are other potentially justifiable purchases—take, for example, the millions for “threats and hazard identification,” and for “mobile digital x-ray equipment which enables technicians to perform rapid assessment of hazardous devices.” Nevertheless, many of the explanations offered by FEMA seem demonstrably understated.
Toward the end of the DHS justification document, descriptions get especially short and lazy, as if the person filling out the forms grew too fatigued to bother. In one case, the whole description for a $90,000 purchase reads: “Implement a risk management program capable of supporting regional risk analysis, and the prioritization and implementation of risk reduction strategies.” For a $250,000 item listed under “Strengthen All-hazards Recovery Capabilities,” the agency gives a mere two-word explanation: “Thira [Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment] Info.” The convenience of acquiring equipment considered, according to the ACLU which surfaced these documents, it may be as important to examine what police departments opt not to purchase with their blank checks as it is to expose all the toys they have amassed.
“Last week, [BPD] Commissioner Bill Evans testified before the Boston City Council and the public that we should hold off on procuring body cameras for his police officers, in part because of the financial cost,” says Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty project at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Even if the city got money from the federal government for the initial costs, Evans said, Bostonians might later bear the burden of picking up the tab once federal grants for body cameras disappeared.”
Crockford continues: “Ironically, we’ve never once heard a law enforcement officer invoke such reasoning to reject federal funds for surveillance cameras or militarized police equipment. To the contrary, the Boston Police Department has received millions of dollars through this DHS funding program to build a so-called ‘counterterrorism’ fusion center and to blanket our city in surveillance cameras … The BPD has accepted DHS and DOJ funds for staffing, surveillance, and equipment for decades, seemingly without fear that when the money dries up, local taxpayers will be on the hook. But when the talk turns to technology that would document police encounters with residents and offer a modicum of accountability, the police commissioner suddenly is worried about unfunded mandates. Anyone who sees this latest DHS grant application—just one among many like it—will find that excuse hard to swallow.”
Ed. Note: A previous version of this story noted that the ACLU obtained the DHS/FEMA report from DHS. In fact, they obtained the documents from the City of Boston. The article has been changed to reflect this correction.