Image by Tak Toyoshima
Last June, Washington Post ace Radley Balko wrote a bombshell about SWAT activity in Massachusetts that shook advocates for government transparency to their skeptical cores. The shocker: Roughly 70 percent of the Commonwealth’s 351 police departments belongs to one of several Law Enforcement Councils. Financially speaking, LECs are technically nonprofit corporations; but as Balko quoted from a damning 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), though such outfits “are funded by local and federal taxpayer money, are composed exclusively of public police officers and sheriffs, and carry out traditional law enforcement functions through specialized units such as SWAT teams,” they “do not maintain and make public comprehensive and comprehensible documents pertaining to their operations.”
Accountability watchdogs found the news troubling on countless fronts. The LECs are yet another layer in a robust security apparatus, as state police agencies and more than two dozen municipalities across Mass are already equipped for SWAT ops. More worrisome, though, is that despite feasting on millions in subsidies since 9/11, and in one case being made to pay a settlement to the feds for “not properly account[ing] for several hundred thousand dollars of grant funds” in their School Threat Assessment and Response System program, LECs have benefitted from the cloak of privacy enjoyed by corporations, and as such have been reluctant to share records with reporters and the public.
Bothered by what it deemed “the weakness of Massachusetts public records law and the culture of secrecy that has infected local police departments and Law Enforcement Councils,” last June ACLU attorneys filed suit against the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC), which the plaintiffs describe as “a group of 61 police and sheriff departments in Middlesex and Essex counties” that “uses armored vehicles, automatic weapons and combat gear to carry out military-style operations, including forced entries into homes to serve search warrants.” After a year of deliberation in Suffolk County Superior Court, last month NEMLEC settled with the ACLU, agreeing to disclose more than 900 pages of documents including everything from deployment reports to financial records. DigBoston was among a few select reporting outlets given early access to the fruits of the lawsuit, and found the information therein to be boggling; the Bay State norm is apparently to deploy dozens of SWAT officers from across the region to serve warrants on any prospective perps who are believed to have firearms. Such force may seem appropriate in certain dangerous circumstances; in the vast majority of cases, however, overkill appears to be an underlying theme …
-In October 2012, NEMLEC dispatched 28 members from 10 different city and town departments—their alliance spans from Groton and the New Hampshire border to the north, to Newton and Waltham on the southern side, and to Gloucester and Newburyport up the coast—to confront a “barricaded subject armed with a knife” who had a “history of mental health issues.”
-In January 2013, NEMLEC was activated to assist with a “no knock day time search warrant … for narcotics (heroin).” Since the target had a “very extensive criminal history” and a “confidential informant” allegedly reported a handgun in the apartment, Lowell police were given three teams with a total of 30 troops, the “platoon” packing everything from battering rams and long arms to attack dogs and tasers. Together with the medics and crisis negotiators in tow, the posse totaled nearly 40 people.
-Responding to a suicidal subject in Gloucester who was armed with a knife back in September 2013, Gloucester police were complemented by 23 members of NEMLEC SWAT, four crisis negotiators, two K-9 officers, and nine incident management specialists—plus two additional SWAT associates from the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office for good measure.
-In September 2013, NEMLEC called an astonishing 110 bodies from SWAT and their affiliated Regional Response Team (RRT) to Dunstable after reports rung out of a “missing 57 year old male who had a history of depression and suicidal thoughts.” After approximately three hours of searching, during which NEMLEC “deployed ATVs, mountain bikes and personnel on foot to conduct line and grid searches,” local police found the man in question deceased on an abandoned property with self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
The ACLU documents also include price indexes for NEMLEC’s heavy artillery and gadgets, including tens of thousands of dollars for mobile radio and camcorder equipment, a $141,000 “Armored Response Vehicle,” and more than $150,000 for facemasks. Additionally, the trove packs interesting tidbits like the council’s use-of-force policy for “conducted energy weapons,” which states first and foremost that the “Taser is an additional police tool and is not intended to replace verbal problem solving skills, self-defense techniques, or firearms.”
Of the seemingly innumerable frivolous deployments and expenses, one NEMLEC action on October 16, 2012 stands out as the most absurd. Documents show that “to assist Medford PD with security, dignitary protection and crowd control issues with the visit of the Dalai Lama,” the council dispatched 34 personnel to the Elks Lodge near the Kurukulla Center. While four members comprising an “immediate action team” sat in a “grey van” for the rest of the day, the “remaining members of the SWAT team were assigned to crowd control, if needed.” As anyone familiar with the Lama’s repertoire may have predicted, special units were not ultimately required to quell the horde, and after eight hours on the clock, the team was dismissed.
Whether the Lama requested a goon squad and an armored tank on wheels is unknown. What’s more important is that the information from these documents would have been unknown as well had lawyers from the ACLU not taken on NEMLEC, which has been masquerading behind corporation status since 1974. Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Mass Technology for Liberty program, says, “Ultimately the decision about how to spend public dollars should rest with the public itself. That’s why transparency in policing especially is so critical, and why the release of these documents—only after a lawsuit—is so important.”
Crockford continues: “Do people in the towns that pay NEMLEC officers think this was a good use of the police department’s time? We cannot begin asking these kinds of questions about government expenditures and actions unless we actually know what’s going on. It shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit to get these records, but because our public records law is so weak, it did. In a funny way, the story of NEMLEC’s 34-person SWAT army guarding the Dalai Lama is also a story about why we need to reform Massachusetts public records law.”