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Regional SWAT squad claims it is a private organization, not subject to public records law

June 26, 2014

Today the ACLU released a major report, tracking the militarization of the police in the United States. The report found, among other startling things, that only 7 percent of the 800 SWAT raids studied occurred in hostage and barricade situations and against active shooters. The vast majority were related to drugs. In what probably won't come as a shock to black and brown people, the majority of these SWAT raids executed to serve drug warrants were against people of color.

Here in Massachusetts, we also released a report on the same subject. Unfortunately, it is very slim on SWAT raid details. One of the reasons it is so slim on these details is because the cops, when asked for after-action reports and statistics on raids, claimed they didn't have them, that it would be too expensive to compile them, or that they didn't have to obey public records law.

Record scratch. That can't be right.

That's why today we are also filing suit against one such regional SWAT team, called NEMLEC. This is a regional law enforcement council that maintains not just a SWAT squad but other militarized police type stuff, like a motorcycle unit and a BearCat armored truck.

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When we asked NEMLEC (and the other law enforcement councils in Massachusetts) for records about their SWAT policies and deployments, we were startled to receive this response: we don't have to give you documents because we aren't government agencies.

Say what?

The law enforcement councils in our state are staffed by public police officials, sustained by government grants, and oversee law enforcement operations that involve busting down people's doors and arresting them. And they want to claim these entities are private, and therefore not subject to open records law?

That doesn't fly, and it can't be right. As my colleague Jessie Rossman, staff attorney here, said, "NEMLEC can't have it both ways. Either it is a public entity subject to public records laws, or what it is doing is illegal."

Read more about the lawsuit, and stay tuned. We hope we will soon learn much more about how SWAT raids are executed in Massachusetts, and for what reasons.

That transparency is really critical. After all, only then can we begin to have an informed conversation about how these militarized raids are affecting our communities on a mass scale, and what public policy reforms should look like.

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