The “review is focused on racial disparities in the rates at which people are stopped and frisked”
By Chris Faraone
There has been significant state-level scrutiny of Massachusetts municipal law enforcement officers in the past year, with the appointed Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission suspending 31 officers for various offenses from Somerville to Springfield as of May 9, 2023.
Those unprecedented impugnments of individual cops however may pale in comparison to an altogether separate investigation underway by the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) into the Boston Police Department’s 40-plus member Youth Violence Strike Force (YVSF), often called the BPD “Gang Unit.”
The inquiry came to light through an email that Suffolk Lawyers for Justice (SLJ) sent to hundreds of public defenders and criminal defense attorneys on May 2. The Boston nonprofit oversees bar advocates who provide services to indigent clients, and explained in the group memo that “the Civil Rights Division of the Attorney General’s Office is conducting an investigation into [YVSF] to determine whether that unit engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing.”
“Specifically,” the SLJ email continued, “our review is focused on racial disparities in the rates at which people are stopped and frisked by the members of the unit, as well as an assessment of whether those stops and frisks are supported by an adequate constitutional justification.”
Part of the investigation is a review of the department’s “gang assessment database” “to assess its impact on policing in Boston.” Among other knocks on the resource built to “provide law enforcement a citywide framework for identifying individuals and groups that associate as a ‘gang’ and thus are likely to engage in or perpetrate criminal activity” but that has at times included more than 5,000 people, last year the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit identified “flaws in that database, including its reliance on an erratic point system built on unsubstantiated inferences.” Those flaws led to Cristian Joshue Diaz Ortiz, a Salvadoran national, being implicated as a member of MS-13 for no substantial reason and subsequently having his claims for asylum denied by the US Department of Justice.
Thomas Nolan, a former BPD lieutenant who now teaches criminology, has written that “one of the primary issues of concern with gang databases is that they too often provide no foundation or support for the contentions and representations that the intelligence they collect is reliably indicative of gang activity.” An early YVSF member, he saw teenagers “‘verified’ for simply being seen in a photograph wearing a certain baseball hat, having a particular tattoo, or having a picture taken or being seen with another person who was a ‘verified’ gang member.”
“I think the investigation is going to reveal that the unit as a whole should be disbanded,” said Stephanie Soriano, a Boston attorney who frequently defends clients arrested by YVSF members. “We will find racially targeted investigations and an enormous amount of instances where the unit violates the civil rights of young men of color and communities of color as a whole. Their goal is to take firearms off of the street and will do so by any means necessary. I think the investigation will find that this happens without proper guidance and protocol.”
Current Massachusetts AG Andrea Campbell was sworn in as the state’s top prosecutor in January. Prior to that role, from 2015 through last year she served as the District 4 Boston City Councilor, representing Dorchester and Mattapan where the YVSF is very active.
In an interview on the CommonWealth Codcast released on Monday, Campbell told reporter Jennifer Smith that her office is working on its own strategic plan that includes establishing a gun violence prevention unit that will work “hand in hand” with a separate police accountability unit. "We have the authority from the recent police reform law to take on pattern and practice investigations," Campbell said, echoing language from the May 2 SLJ email.
Reached for comment about the YVSF investigation, an AGO spokesperson confirmed in an email, “Our Civil Rights Division is reviewing the Youth Violence Strike Force and its Gang Assessment Database based on allegations that, between 2018 and the present, there may have been a pattern or practice of racially biased policing. We have received the full cooperation of the Boston Police Department and our review is ongoing.”
Their Civil Rights Division's appeal to defense attorneys via SLJ further outlined their approach:
“It is very important to our investigation to hear directly from people about their interactions with the gang unit in order to help us understand how the unit operates in different communities of Boston. To that end, we are hoping that criminal defense attorneys, immigration attorneys, and any other attorneys with impacted clients will reach out to us. If you have litigated cases involving members of the Youth Violence Strike Force, such as suppression motions, we would love to speak with you and hear more about the case.”
The AGO is also “hoping to speak directly with clients, if possible … under any conditions (confidentiality, etc.) that people might need to feel they can be most candid and comfortable.” The scope of their investigation is Jan. 1, 2018 to the present.
A spokesperson for BPD media relations wrote in an email, “We are aware of the review and will continue to cooperate with the Attorney General’s Office.”
Disbanded and rebranded
The YVSF is the successor of Boston’s long gone City Wide Anti-Crime Unit (CWACU), which was formed in 1988 to, as one BPD captain later told researchers in a postmortem review, respond to an increase in gang activity during the Crack Era by “go[ing] in, kick[ing] butts, and crack[ing] heads” with a mentality that “they could do anything to these kids” in order to quell violence.
Depending on who you ask, the CWACU was either largely effective because of the drop in violent crime in the immediate wake of their deploying “heavy-handed” tactics (Boston’s homicide rate fell from 103 in 1991 to 73 in ’92, per FBI records), or a total long-term failure on account of their campaign of unabashed brutality propelling “community mistrust to an extremely high level.”
Wth multiple concurrent scandals and media backlash around stop-and-frisk and other aggressive policies, the CWACU was officially disbanded in 1990 and “reorganized” as the Anti-Gang Violence Unit (AGVU). The rebrand came with a softer approach, but following a tornado of negative press around a spike in homicides in 1993 and scrutiny brought on by an independent commission report finding the “Department requires major changes,” BPD brass blamed the “squeaky-clean” strategies of the AGVU and, after only three years, slapped another name on the marquee.
Debuting in ’93 with most of the same members as the AGVU, the Youth Violence Strike Force was tooled to engage partner agencies plus community members and leaders to combat youth violence. It didn’t take long to recover from the fallout over alarming statistics and negative coverage; by the mid-’90s, the descendants of CWACU had effectively polished their public image, becoming what the chairman of the Department of Sociology at Harvard University would in 1999 describe as an “emblem of success in the field of community-based engagement in police endeavors.”
By the late-’90s, the YVSF was being touted by the Department of Justice as a “force comprised of 50 full-time police officers from Boston and 15 police officers from outside agencies” that “focuses on the collaborative use of order maintenance tactics to quickly ‘cool’ any area of the city in which gang firearm violence flares,” with “the most dangerous offenders targeted for priority prosecution, and a substantial effort made to disrupt the flow of arms to gangs.”
Beyond local crime coverage, YVSF methods have been extolled (and in some cases questioned) by researchers and taught to police departments nationwide for decades. In 2013, the strike force even saw a popularity boost after members appeared on Donnie Wahlberg's “Boston's Finest” TNT reality drama.
Strike and frisk
These days, the YVSF is mostly recognized for its prolific work removing guns and their owners from the streets of Boston, and covered under headlines like “‘Youth Violence Strike Force’ investigation results in slew of arrests, weapons confiscations” and, from their own BPD News feed, “Suspects Identified in Incidents that Led to the Recovery of Ten Firearms in 90 Minutes in Youth Violence Strike Force Investigations in Dorchester and Mattapan.”
Their methods, however, may not jibe with plans for the future of policing in the Hub. Largely in response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop in 2020 and nationwide calls for accountability, then-Boston Mayor Marty Walsh commissioned and subsequently adopted recommendations made by a Boston Police Reform Task Force that year. The efficacy of those procedural shifts is up for debate; in the meantime, reforms like an improved visual dashboard at their command center that tracks data on stop-and-frisk along with other metrics, as well as an expanded body camera program and Office of Police Accountability and Transparency (OPAT) put in place—by Walsh with help from officials including AG Campbell when she was a City Council member—could be helpful for state investigators pursuing police.
News of Campbell's look into YVSF tactics comes less than a year after the appointment of Michael Cox as BPD commissioner. An open progressive who is outspoken about institutional abuse, Cox is seen favorably by many OPAT members and other good government advocates focused on law enforcement. Former Commissioner William Gross, who served from August 2018 to January 2021 overlapping with most of the AGO’s investigation’s purview, was a commander of the YVSF before moving to the BPD homicide unit and eventually to the highest office.
“There will be repeated instances where people are stopped and illegally searched daily and without any probable cause to do so,” Soriano said. “Currently we only hear about it when an arrest happens, but what about the thousands of times where nothing is found? And we are left with a community of young men who are angry and tired of being pat frisked and searched as a part of their daily routine. There needs to be more checks and balances because at this point the unit is operating as its own gang.”