(FinalCall.com) – Boston police are launching a program, The Safe Homes Initiative, which allows parents in high-crime neighborhoods to have detectives enter homes without warrants to search for guns in children’s bedrooms. Neighborhoods such as Grove Hall, Eagleston Square, Franklin Hill and Franklin Field are being targeted. Critics say the program plays on parents so fearful of gun violence, and the possibility teenagers may be involved, that important civil liberties are sacrificed.
According to the Boston Police Department figures, a firearm was used in 51 homicides in 2007, down from 54 in 2006; there were 273 non-fatal shootings in 2007, down from 311 in 2006; and 743 firearms recovered in 2007, down from 768 in 2006.
When the controversial program was first announced, civil libertarians quickly reminded authorities that police have restrictions on their authority and ability to conduct searches. “The constitution was written with a very specific intent, and that was to keep the law out of private homes unless there is a written document signed by a judge and based on probable cause,” explained Brian Core, spokesman for the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union. Our “biggest concern” deals with the issue of “informed consent,” he said. People might not understand the implications of weapons being found and tested or any contraband being found, Mr. Core said.
According to BPDnews.com, the city police department webpage, if a firearm is recovered Boston police will not arrest the youth for the illegal firearm. However, if it is determined the gun was used in a crime, appropriate charges may be filed. If other illegal items are found, such as drugs, the officer has the discretion to make or not make an arrest, according to the Safe Homes brochure, which may be found at BPDnews.com.
“This is a bad idea from beginning to end, because it circumvents laws of protection of a person’s personal space,” argues Jamal Crawford, a community activist in the Roxbury community. “I know the police are saying the community is behind this, but they are playing on people’s fears,” he adds.
“Everybody knows this program stinks to high heaven,” City Councilor Chuck Turner told The Final Call. “There are too many issues with police improprieties in Boston, such as brutality and shake downs, to believe the program would be conducted properly.
“The BPD has already admitted they cannot stop the drugs and the gang violence. It’s time politicians begin to stand up and speak truth to the situation,” Mr. Turner continued. “There are 11,000 young people, ages 16 to 24 in Boston out of work, three-fourths people of color. If you don’t have any economy, you don’t have any peace,” he said.
Rev. Wayne Daley, of the Boston Ten Point Program, told The Final Call Safe Homes is “a positive program.” There has been a lot of demand for the police department to get guns off the streets, he said. “Just take a look at some of the things that are happening with our young people having these guns,” Rev. Daley noted. “We need to be responsible as a community, and the police department has committed to transparency; so we need to be part of this program. We just have to hold them accountable.”
Bro. Don Muhammad, of Muhammad Mosque No. 11, said the police accountability is an important part of the program. “When they first announced the program the community was totally against it. There were many calls to the mosque asking our input,” he told The Final Call. “The community is sensitive to the issue of who is considered to be reputable in this,” he added. Community organizations and leaders will go to homes when police are called, he explained.
The community will have input throughout the process, Mr. Muhammad emphatically stated.
The Boston program, apparently modeled at least in part on a failed program in St. Louis, is part of a troubling trend to introduce searches or surveillance into American homes, civil liberties advocates said.
In New York City, a controversial program introduced last month by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has firefighters act as watchmen. The firefighters are being trained to identify material or behavior that may indicate terrorist activities. When answering emergency calls at private residences, firefighters are to watch for “hostile” or “uncooperative” individuals, or those who “express discontent” with the government. It appears that if the program is successful in New York City, the federal agency intends to expand it to other major cities.
Leading civil rights and civil liberties advocates have called the program an invasion of privacy and much too broad. Others question whether firefighters should be acting as spies.
The N.Y. office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), in a letter to FDNY Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, raised privacy concerns. “We believe that terrorism-related intelligence training of the FDNY will serve as a ‘back door’ route to warrantless searches by the government,” the group said.
Before the federal program began, New York firefighters and inspectors had been training to recognize materials and behavior the government identifies as “signs of planning and support for terrorism,” according to spokesman Salvatore Cassano. “There are many things that firefighters do that other law enforcement or other agents aren’t able to do,” he added.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York City American Civil Liberties Union, told The Final Call: “I am deeply concerned about this program.” People must be concerned about the invasion of privacy, she said. The Bush administration has been discredited for misleading the public, and still Americans are too easily hoodwinked into trusting the government, she said. “Turning firemen into spies would not make anybody any safer, it’s just a distraction,” Ms. Lieberman added.
A respected constitutional law professor at George Washington University has accused the Bush administration of using firefighters to circumvent Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and the need to obtain search warrants.
Mike German, a former FBI agent who is now national security policy counsel to the ACLU in Washington, D.C., agrees with the professor’s assessment. The Homeland Security/Fire Department partnership is close to the Bush administration’s 2002 proposal to have workers with access to private homes, such as mail carriers and telephone repairman, report suspicious behavior to the FBI, he noted.
“Americans universally rejected that idea,” Mr. German told The Final Call.
New York City is not the first to employ the program, he said. “The fire services in Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Ariz., Los Angeles County and Atlanta, Ga., have been receiving terrorism-related training for at least the past three years,” Mr. German said.
In Washington, the fire service made its entrance into the intelligence world about two-years-ago, and now D.C. fire and emergency medical service workers have access to the same terrorism-related intelligence as the police, he said. District of Columbia firefighters and EMS providers are in 170,000 homes and businesses each year, Mr. German noted. “If in the line of duty they come across evidence of a crime, of course they should report that to the police. But you don’t want them being intelligence agents,” he said.