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US Attorney Andrew Lelling, Boston police commissioner put focus on hate groups

US Attorney Andrew Lelling, Boston police commissioner put focus on hate groups, vow to protect the polls.

By Shelley Murphy Globe Staff

Federal and local authorities said Friday that they are tracking hate groups on social media and will post federal monitors and police at polls across the state to protect voters from intimidation or threats during the presidential election.

“We will prepare for a worst-case scenario,” said US Attorney Andrew Lelling, describing a coordinated effort by law enforcement to prevent any unrest at the polls and respond quickly if any problems are reported on Election Day.

Lelling was joined by Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, who described a collaborative effort to share intelligence and thwart groups that are “hellbent on hate and intimidation.”

“We understand this might be one of the most contentious elections in US history,” Gross said. “People need to understand we are working together.”

Gross added that police also need to rely on the public to “give us your intel on these hate groups to make sure everyone’s constitutional rights are upheld.”

The effort to target hate groups bent on interfering with the Nov. 3 election coincides with Lelling’s announcement Friday that he has created a civil rights task force aimed at helping state and local law enforcement officials prevent, identify, and prosecute civil rights violations in Massachusetts.

Lelling said there was an urgent need for a more targeted and coordinated response from law enforcement agencies following a surge in hate crimes based on race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, coupled with a rise in white supremacy organizations and domestic terrorism.

A call by President Trump and the Republican National Committee for thousands of poll watchers to monitor voting locations on Election Day has triggered concerns about voter intimidation and violence by neo-Nazis and right-wing activists.

“I think we are prepared in Massachusetts,” said Terrence Reidy, state undersecretary of public safety and security, adding that law enforcement authorities “recognize the potential problems that could happen” and are ready. Federal monitors won’t be at every polling place but will go to locations where they suspect there could be a problem or has been one in the past, Lelling said. Authorities will be tracking social media and analyzing potential threats, he said.

“I think that what we’ve seen both coming out of the current presidential administration and different white supremacist groups and so-called militias has understandably raised a lot of concern with people,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. But he added, “In certain communities, increased law enforcement presence is a problem, especially when you think about communities of color and poor communities that are normally over-policed and are more likely to have negative interactions.”

Hall said the ACLU has trained hundreds of poll monitors, distributed leaflets about voting rights, and will be working with the Election Protection coalition to make sure every qualified voter is able to cast a ballot.

“If there is illegal conduct, violence, intimidation, or harassment that is occurring, we should expect law enforcement to respond to that,” Hall said. “Our hope is residents and citizens of Massachusetts are going to have a positive voting experience.”

Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE, which has also been monitoring social media and will have volunteers watching the polls, said people are nervous, but she expects a record turnout for the election.

“It’s critical that they go out and vote," Crawford said. “Do not be intimidated, exercise their right.” She said people are “already intimidated by COVID" and shouldn’t be worried about voting. Crawford said she’s not anticipating that Massachusetts will face some of the same “foolishness” that has occurred during early voting in other states, but “2020 has been so difficult in almost every way, who knows what to expect.”

Gina Kwon, chief of the Massachusetts attorney general’s criminal bureau, said protecting voter rights and preventing interference with the election is a top priority at the office, which recently released public service announcements telling voters of their rights.

Hampden Police Chief Jeff W. Farnsworth, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said authorities are “prepared for every contingency,” but "we hope we have a lot of people eating pizza and being bored.”

The law enforcement authorities described their efforts to protect voters during a media roundtable at the US attorney’s office Friday to announce the creation of the Civil Rights Task Force.

The death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police officers, has sparked a public reckoning over systemic racism and demands for police reform, said Lelling, a Trump appointee.

“We are living in a time of eroding faith in public institutions,” said Lelling, adding that people need to see that law enforcement officials are responsive to the communities they serve. He said a working group of representatives from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies will meet quarterly to prevent, identify, and prosecute civil rights violations.

Community leaders will also be invited to serve on the task force, according to Lelling’s spokeswoman. “I think when you launch one of these initiatives what convinces the public that you weren’t kidding is when you actually prosecute people,” Lelling said.

But Hall, of the ACLU, said one of the most significant concerns in communities of color is police violence.

“To the extent that they hope prosecuting hate crimes serves as a deterrent, it doesn’t get to the deep structural issues of white supremacy that are not only expressed in the actions of virulent racists but also within the structures of law enforcement and some of the practices that they are engaged in," he said.

This story originally appeared in the Boston Globe. Check it out here!


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