SWAT Teams Say They’re Private Corporations, So No Open Records

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June 26, 2014 by The Zemanifesto

Getting ready me 090402

By Greg Zeman

The general findings of a new ACLU report on SWAT teams in the United States are troubling, but they aren’t that shocking to those of us who have reported on law enforcement. Even less so to people from the low-income, minority communities most negatively impacted by militarized policing.

SWAT teams were created explicitly to respond to extreme situations beyond the capabilities of a regular police officer. The “special weapons and tactics” that give these quasi-military police units their name — submachine guns, assault and sniper rifles, chemical agents, stun grenades and more — are meant for confronting heavily armed criminals, neutralizing active shooters, rescuing hostages and riot control.

But that’s not what they usually get used for. From the report

Nearly 80% of the SWAT raids the ACLU studied were conducted to serve search warrants, usually in drug cases. With public support for the War on Drugs at an all-time low, police are using hyper-aggressive, wartime tools and tactics to fight a war that has lost its public mandate.

The “no-knock” drug warrants frequently executed by SWAT teams have led to the death and serious injury of countless innocent people, often children.

Law enforcement supporters generally claim these are nothing more than tragic accidents, but this map of botched raids since 1985 from the CATO Institute shows what their report on militarized policing called “an epidemic of isolated incidents.”

cato mapAnd to the surprise of pretty much nobody, most of these potentially lethal raids take place in Black and Brown neighborhoods. From the report, emphasis added:

 American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war… law enforcement agencies have amassed military arsenals purportedly to wage the failed War on Drugs, the battlegrounds of which have disproportionately been in communities of color.

20120730_swat4_33 Literal Corporate Policing?

But there was one surprise that came out of the ACLU’s national report. When the organization requested information about SWAT teams in the state of Massachusetts, they were told no information would be forthcoming.

The reason? The organization responsible for coordinating the state’s SWAT team with local police claims they are a private company and thus not required to comply with open records requests.

The SWAT teams in Massachusetts are run by what’s known as a “law enforcement council” or LEC, which is generally comprised of police chiefs from participating departments. Specifically, the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council

From 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 of Massachusetts has filed a lawsuit against NEMLEC, demanding the release of the records they requested for the national report. In a press release, Jessie Rossman, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said NEMLEC is trying to game the law:

 “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… Private individuals can’t own automatic weapons, or even get product information about armored vehicles. 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.”

There’s nothing unusual about law enforcement finding legal justifications for withholding information from public scrutiny. And there is some marginal precedent, in as much as private prisons are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

But In an interview with The Zemanifesto, Laura Rotolo, another attorney with the Massachusetts ACLU, said a law enforcement agency claiming absolute exemption from transparency laws is probably a first:


“We’ve certainly never seen it in Massachusetts before… We’ve heard anecdotally that this has happened in other states, but this is the first time anybody’s actually used that incorporated status to deny documents. This is definitely the first time somebody has filed suit.”

Rotolo added that even though some of the documents the ACLU requested were in the possession of local police departments, NEMLEC instructed those departments not to release them.

No representative from NEMLEC could be reached for comment at press time.

Bottom line? The SWAT teams say they’re corporations and the U.S. Supreme Court says corporations are people. So I’m just going to take them both at their word and conclude that SWAT teams are horrible people.

Via ACLU Massachusetts 



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