First Circuit Tears Into Boston PD's Bullshit Gang Database While Overturning A Deportation Decision
from the now-find-some-way-to-kill-it-dead dept
A federal court has delivered a rebuke of police gang databases in, of all things, a review of a deportation hearing.
As we’ve been made painfully aware, gang databases are just extensions of biased policing efforts. People are placed in gang databases for numerous, incredibly stupid reasons. People are designated gang members simply for living, working, and going to school in areas where gang activity is prevalent. Infants have been added to gang databases because cops can’t be bothered to perform any due diligence. There’s no way for people to know they’ve been designated as gang-affiliated and, worse, there’s often no way to challenge this designation and get yourself removed from these lists, which tend to result in additional harassment by police officers or “gang enhancements” that lengthen sentences for anyone listed in these dubious databases.
In 2015, Homeland Security Investigations officers performed a sweep in Boston, Massachusetts, rounding up suspected MS-13 gang members for deportation. This sweep snared Cristian Diaz Ortiz, who was 16, had entered the country illegally, and was now living with his uncle.
Oritz applied for asylum, citing the fear of being subjected to MS-13 gang violence if he was sent back to his home country, El Salvador. From the First Circuit Appeals Court decision [PDF]:
On October 1, 2018, Diaz Ortiz filed an application for asylum, withholding of removal, and CAT protection, basing his request on multiple grounds, including persecution because of his evangelical Christian religion. He also reported that an aunt had been murdered in 2011 by members of MS-13, and he feared that the gang would kill him as well if he returned to El Salvador. In a subsequently filed affidavit, Diaz Ortiz stated that, while he was living in El Salvador, MS-13 had threatened his life “on multiple occasions” because he was a practicing evangelical Christian. He said he repeatedly refused the gang’s demands that he join MS-13, but gang members continued to follow him and issue threats. In 2015, the gang physically attacked him and warned “that they would kill [him] and [his] family if [he] did not stop saying [he] was a Christian and living and preaching against the gang way of life.”
The Immigration Judge sided with the Department of Homeland Security. It largely made this decision due to the introduction of a “Gang Assessment Database” that said Ortiz was not a practicing Christian who might fear retaliation if removed from the country, but rather an MS-13 infiltrator. The “gang package” (as the court refers to it) was compiled by the Boston PD. It stated the following:
Cristian Josue DIAZ ORTIZ has been verified as an MS-13 gang member by the Boston Police Department (BPD)/Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC).
Cristian Josue DIAZ ORTIZ has documented associations with MS-13 gang members by the Boston Police Department and Boston School Police Department (BSPD). (See the attached BPD & BSPD incident/field interview reports and gang intelligence bulletins.)
Cristian Josue DIAZ ORTIZ has been documented carrying common MS-13 gang related weapons by the Boston Police Department. (See the attached BPD incident/field interview reports.) [A footnote states that the only “weapon” ever documented by the BPD was a bike chain and a padlock carried in Ortiz’s backpack.]
Cristian Josue DIAZ ORTIZ has been documented frequenting areas notorious for MS13 gang activity by the Boston Police Department. These areas are 104 Bennington St. and the East Boston Airport Park/Stadium in East Boston, Massachusetts which are both known for MS-13 gang activity including recent firearms arrests and a homicide.
According to the Boston PD, Oritz racked up “points” by associating with gang members and being in areas MS-13 members frequented. If enough points are accrued, a person gets placed in the gang database. But the underlying events had nothing to do with gang activity, despite what the summary provided by the DHS said.
The BPD documented nine “interactions” with Ortiz in which it assigned “gang” points to him. Three of those instances involved Ortiz smoking marijuana (a civil infraction in Massachusetts) with students and others the BPD claimed were “known MS-13 members.” Four others involved Ortiz “loitering” in a place near “known gang member” or being approached and talked to by “known gang members.” And one of the interactions was the time the BPD “discovered” Oritz carrying a bike lock and chain in his backpack — something not all that uncommon for bike owners (which Ortiz was).
This “gang package” was critiqued by a law enforcement expert who testified that Ortiz should never have been included in the gang database. The former Boston police officer pointed out Ortiz had never been suspected of criminal activity and was apparently being penalized solely for spending time with people of his same ethnicity. The gang package’s claim that Ortiz had a “history” of carrying weapons was clearly undercut by the BPD’s documentation of a single incident where an officer recovered something that could be used as a weapon (the bike chain), but was not inherently a tool of unlawful violence.
The immigration judge ignored all of this, finding only the DHS and BPD credible. So did the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). Fortunately for Ortiz, the First Circuit isn’t as easily impressed by the Boston PD’s police work. It has some very harsh words for the two lower levels that blew off their obligations to the asylum seeker.
If the IJ and BIA had performed even a cursory assessment of reliability, they would have discovered a lack of evidence to substantiate the gang package’s classification of Diaz Ortiz as a member of MS-13. Most significantly, the record contains no explanation of the basis for the point system employed by the BPD. The record is silent on how the Department determined what point values should attach to what conduct, or what point threshold is reasonable to reliably establish gang membership.
As the appeals court points out, these databases are inherently unreliable because literally anything can be used to imply someone is a gang member. The lower courts were wrong to completely dismiss Ortiz’s challenge of the BPD’s assessment.
That silence is so consequential because, during the period relevant to this case, the list of “items or activities” that could lead to “verification for entry into the Gang Assessment Database” was shockingly wide-ranging. It included “Prior Validation by a Law Enforcement Agency” (nine points), “Documented Association (BPD Incident Report)” (four points), and the open-ended “Information Not Covered by Other Selection Criteria” (one point). The 2017 form for submitting FIO [Field Interview Operations] reports to the database states that a “Documented Association” includes virtually any interaction with someone identified as a gang member: “[w]alking, eating, recreating, communicating, or otherwise associating with confirmed gang members or associates.”
The points are easy to acquire, but there’s no consistency in how the Boston PD assigns them, lending more credibility to the assumption that gang databases mainly exist to confirm cops’ biases.
Moreover, the point system was applied to Diaz Ortiz in a haphazard manner. He was assigned points for most, but not all, of his documented interactions with purported MS-13 members. When he was assigned points, he was not always assigned the same number per interaction. Although he was assigned two points for “contact” with alleged gang members or associates on most occasions, he was assigned five points for the “Intelligence Report” submitted by the Boston School Police that describes an encounter that appears no different from the other “contacts.” Only two items in the Rule 335 list carry five points: “Information from Reliable, Confidential Informant” and “Information Developed During Investigation and/or Surveillance.” We thus cannot accept the BIA’s implicit conclusion that the gang package’s points-driven identification of Diaz-Ortiz as a “VERIFIED and ACTIVE” member of MS-13 was reliable.
Case in point:
The entry for November 28, 2017 — the report from a Boston school officer — illustrates several of these issues. The gist of the entry is that two officers made “casual conversation” with a student in a “full face mask” whom they identified as a member of MS-13, and they then saw the student walk over to a group of teenage boys that included Diaz Ortiz. The report identifies no improper conduct by any of the students; it does not say that the mask bore gang colors or symbols;23 it does not indicate that the masked student spoke directly to Diaz Ortiz. Nor does the report explain the basis for identifying the student as an MS-13 member other than to say that the BRIC labeled the student as a “verified” member. Therefore, we at most can infer from this paltry set of facts that Diaz Ortiz was standing near an individual who was identified as an MS-13 member by the BRIC, with the only basis for that identification the possible use of the same problematic point system that identified Diaz Ortiz as a member. Yet, Diaz Ortiz received five points merely because that student decided to walk over and join a group that included him.
Yes, the BPD decided Ortiz was affiliated with a notorious El Salvadoran gang internationally known for violently [checks gang package] smoking the reefer and conversing in public.
The whole opinion is worth reading. It ruthlessly picks apart the BPD’s gang database, reaching conclusions that apply to every gang database run by any law enforcement agency in America. This vacates the lower courts’ decisions, which means Ortiz can again plead his case before the BIA. And this time he’ll get a new judge because the First Circuit feels that sending it back to the original immigration judge would just allow that judge to re-engage with their pre-existing biases.
Gang databases are garbage. Even the most cursory examination of the underlying factors common to almost every gang database makes that clear. But the immigration court couldn’t be bothered to do this, which almost resulted in someone being sent back to El Salvador where interactions with actual gang members might have resulted in his death, rather than just being an unwilling participant in Boston’s “Whose Gang Is It Anyway?,” where everything’s made up and, unfortunately, the points do matter.