ACLU sues Massachusetts SWAT team agency, demanding public accountability

Regional police group denies access to public records, claiming to be a private entity.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

CONTACT:
Christopher Ott, communications director, 617-482-3170 x322, cott@aclum.org
Raquel Ronzone, communications specialist, 617-482-3170 x335, rronzone@aclum.org

BOSTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts today sued the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) for records regarding its Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. The ACLU of Massachusetts seeks public documents including policies guiding the SWAT team's use of deadly force, training materials, incident reports, deployment statistics and equipment contracts. The ACLU has asked the Suffolk County Superior Court to declare that NEMLEC's documents are public records and to order the agency to release them.

NEMLEC, a group of 58 police and sheriff departments in Middlesex and Essex counties, receives government grants and taxpayers' dollars to purchase high-tech equipment, and oversees several operational units. One of these units, the SWAT team, uses armored vehicles, automatic weapons, and combat gear to carry out military-style operations, such as forced entries and high-risk arrests.

NEMLEC operates as a regional law enforcement unit, yet when the ACLU of Massachusetts requested records from NEMLEC, the agency responded that it is a private, non-profit organization, wholly exempt from public records laws.

"NEMLEC can't have it both ways," said ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney Jessie Rossman. "Either it is a public entity subject to public records laws, or what it is doing is illegal."

"Private individuals can't own automatic weapons, or even get product information about armored vehicles," Rossman said. "NEMLEC operates with all of the privileges of a law enforcement agency, and like a law enforcement agency, it should be accountable to the public."

The ACLU of Massachusetts records request was part of a national effort to document a trend toward increasing militarization of police forces. As revealed in parallel reports released today by the ACLU of Massachusetts and the national ACLU, the tactics, mentality and tools deployed by the US military in wars abroad have come home to cities and towns in Massachusetts and across the nation.

According to the ACLU reports, SWAT teams are mobilized to carry out basic police work such as serving warrants and searching homes for a small amount of drugs. The report finds that these tactics are used disproportionately against communities of color.

NEMLEC uses its SWAT team to serve warrants in local communities, where it deploys its BearCat armored vehicle, flash-bang grenades, and automatic weapons. Yet next to nothing is known about the training its members receive or the protocols and rules that govern these operations. And without the incident reports or deployment statistics, it is impossible to know whether these operations are being used effectively or appropriately.

For this reason, the ACLU of Massachusetts sought documents from five Law Enforcement Councils (LECs) operational in Massachusetts, including policies guiding the SWAT teams' use of deadly force, training materials, incident reports, deployment statistics and equipment contracts. But, hiding behind the argument that they are private corporations not subject to the public record laws, NEMLEC and other LECS refused to turn over any documents.

"The public deserves to know about law enforcement operations that are taking place in their communities with their money and in their name," said ACLU of Massachusetts executive director Carol Rose. "If police agencies hide behind a wall of secrecy, the public cannot judge for itself whether officials are acting appropriately or whether policy changes are needed."

For more information about the case and the ACLU reports on police militarization, go to:
https://aclum.org/swat