Some SWAT teams in the state operate as law enforcement councils, or LECs, which are funded by several police departments and overseen by an executive board largely made up of local police chiefs.
Member police departments pay annual membership dues to the LECs, which share technology and oversee crime scene investigators or other specialists.
Some of these LECs have also incorporated 501(c)(3) organizations, which they say exempts them from open records requests.
“Let’s be clear,” wrote Radley Balko for The Washington Post. “These agencies oversee police activities. They employ cops who carry guns, wear badges, collect paychecks provided by taxpayers and have the power to detain, arrest, injure, and kill. They operate SWAT teams, which conduct raids on private residences. And yet they say that because they’ve incorporated, they’re immune to Massachusetts open records laws. The state’s residents aren’t permitted to know how often the SWAT teams are used, what they’re used for, what sort of training they get or who they’re primarily used against.”
The ACLU reported earlier this week that about 240 of the 351 police departments in Massachusetts belong to an LEC, which are set up as corporations but are funded by local and federal taxpayer funds.
“Police departments and regional SWAT teams are public institutions, working with public money, meant to protect and serve the public’s interest,” the ACLU said in its report. “If these institutions do not maintain and make public comprehensive and comprehensible documents pertaining to their operations and tactics, the people cannot judge whether officials are acting appropriately or make needed policy changes when problems arise.”
The ACLU sued the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, which has about 50 member agencies, saying the LEC used government grants and taxpayer funds to purchase its equipment.
“NEMLEC can’t have it both ways,” said ACLU attorney Jessie Rossman. “Either it is a public entity subject to public records laws, or what it is doing is illegal.”
The ACLU survey found that only 7 percent of SWAT missions involved incidents they were originally designed to handle – such as hostage situations or shootings – while 62 percent of their mission involved drug searches.
[Image: swat team via shutterstock]