Don’t Knock Down the Wrong Door

There are a lot of questions you can ask about an address: Who lives at the address? Who doesn't live there, but is a frequent visitor? Are there children in the house? How many rooms are there? Is there more than one level? Is the door even marked? The questions are endless, but the answers are sparse and scattered.


Now, imagine you’re trying to answer all of these questions, and you can’t be wrong.

That’s just one of the challenges that the Boston Police Department Gang Unit faces when ensuring a search warrant is successfully executed.

Because of these challenges, detectives in the Boston Police Department Gang Unit spend much of their time gathering information. Often this involves consulting past search warrants or talking with confidential informants who have visited the sites under investigation.

These past few weeks, we’ve focused on learning how gang unit detectives answer important questions before executing a search warrant. The biggest takeaway from our conversations is that the job of police officers in the gang unit is dynamic, multi-faceted, and often high stakes. According to Sergeant Detective Jay Broderick, “every investigation is fluid.” Following a regimented process for each investigation would never work, because each case presents different challenges. But, regardless of the sources used to carry out an investigation, Sgt. Broderick says “the last thing you want to do is knock down the wrong door.”

A key source of information to Sgt. Broderick and other detectives in the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC). In the words of Ryan Walsh, Deputy Director of the BRIC, much of their work can be described as “journalism for law enforcement.” Each day starts with a 9:30am information-sharing conference call between every department and district in the area. By 4pm, the BRIC consolidates information about recent gang activity and officer safety alerts into a report which is disseminated via email to all police officers citywide.

In addition, gang unit detectives often request information from the BRIC. This might include structured information like photos of a suspect or names of people with whom a suspect has been arrested. But often detectives need more unstructured information, such as relationships between gang members, or what hats members of certain gangs wear to identify themselves. This unstructured information is difficult to systematize, and detectives often rely on individuals at the BRIC to relay this information when they need it, e.g. when they want to understand the relationship between gang associates.

Across both the gang unit and the BRIC, a common challenge is hardware and budget. BRIC analysts voiced a desire for an internal knowledge management system, but acknowledged that upgrading their technology to allow it would be costly. Similarly, Sgt. Broderick wondered whether some issues would be solved if the unit was equipped with more iPads.

While hardware and budget issues are beyond the scope of this course, they are incredibly helpful constraints for us to consider as we narrow in on a problem we can solve. This week, our objective is to learn about how that data is used by detectives and patrolmen on a daily basis, both on and off the streets. Through ride-alongs and interviews with detectives, we hope to hone in on a tool that will make the gang unit detectives’ jobs easier, more efficient, and, ultimately safer for everyone involved.

-Berkeley Brown, Daniel Goldberg, Francesca Ioffreda, Nami Mody, Ihsaan Patel