SWAT Teams Claim 'Corporate' Exemption From Public Scrutiny
ACLU hits brick wall after issuing public records requests for information about deadly force, incident reports, and more.
Operators of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams comprised of tax payer-funded police and sheriffs in Massachusetts claim they are immune to public records requests about deadly force, incident reports, and more because they are private "corporations."
In addition to SWAT teams run by individual towns, many of these military-style domestic policing units in Massachusetts are operated by regional "law enforcement councils," which are bankrolled by tax-payer money and comprised of publicly-funded police and sheriffs. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, approximately 240 of the 351 police departments in Massachusetts belong to these LECs.
Some of these LECs have become incorporated with 501(c)(3) status—a classification they say makes them exempt from public records requests.
Jessie Rossman, staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, told Common Dreams that her organization issued records requests to "a couple of LECs" to obtain information about their policies for a recent report on the militarization of local police. "We got responses from individuals claiming to speak on behalf of the LECs saying they would not be responding because they do not believe they are subject to public records law," she explained.
This is despite the SWAT teams' possession of automatic weapons and combat gear, as well as their military-style "counter-insurgency" tactics, which, according to the ACLU of Massachusetts report, turn communities into "war zones."
As Washington Post writer Radley Balko points out, Massachusetts SWAT teams have an ugly history of brutality and excessive force, including a litany of deaths in botched drug raids. In their report, the ACLU of Massachusetts notes that "unjustifiable force and SWAT raids against people in their homes most often target people of color and the poor."
In response, the ACLU of Massachusetts announced this week it is suing the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council for information about its SWAT teams, after NEMLEC refused a public records request. NEMLEC possesses a combat-level vehicle and weapons for "military style operations," according to a statement about the lawsuit.
"NEMLEC can't have it both ways," said Rossman. "The same authority that allows them to participate in high risk warrant service, forced entry, and arrests of individuals also means they must be subject to public records law."