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Local SWAT Teams Say They Are 'Private Corporations' — Completely 'Immune' From Public Scrutiny

SWAT Squads in Massachusetts don't want to be subject to "open records" laws. They say they are "private corporations" and hence are not accountable to the tax paying public. Meanwhile, there are botched raids based on fabricated information, SWAT teams used to check liquor and barbershop licenses, the burning down of apartment complexes, or citizens killed and maimed "by mistake during the tens of thousands of  SWAT commando raids a year—Ronald David Jackson

"SWAT Team Prepared" - Photo by Oregon Dept of Transportation)

Massachusetts SWAT teams claim they’re private corporations, immune from open records laws

As part of the American Civil Liberties Union’s recent report on police militarization, the Massachusetts chapter of the organization sent open records requests to SWAT teams across that state. It received an interesting response.
RELATED STORY: SWAT Commando Raid On Wrong House Leads To $1 Million Medical Bill for Toddler Hurt by Stun Grenade
As it turns out, a number of SWAT teams in the Bay State are operated by what are called law enforcement councils, or LECs. These LECs are funded by several police agencies in a given geographic area and overseen by an executive board, which is usually made up of police chiefs from member police departments. In 2012, for example, the Tewksbury Police Department paid about $4,600 in annual membership dues to the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, or NEMLEC. (See page 36 of linked PDF.) That LEC has about 50 member agencies. In addition to operating a regional SWAT team, the LECs also facilitate technology and information sharing and oversee other specialized units, such as crime scene investigators and computer crime specialists.

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Some of these LECs have also apparently incorporated as 501(c)(3) organizations. And it’s here that we run into problems. According to the ACLU, the LECs are claiming that the 501(c)(3) status means that they’re private corporations, not government agencies. And therefore, they say they’re immune from open records requests. Let’s be clear. 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.

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Massachusetts also has a long history of accountability and excessive force problems with SWAT teams. A few examples:

SWAT Commando Raid On Wrong House Leads To $1 Million Medical Bill for Toddler Hurt by Stun Grenade in Janesville, Wisconsin Bounkham Phonesavanh Jr., known as "Bou Bou," (Courtesy Phonesavanh Family).
SWAT Commando Raid On Wrong House Leads To $1 Million Medical Bill for Toddler
Hurt by Stun Grenade in Janesville, Wisconsin Bounkham Phonesavanh Jr., known as
"Bou Bou," (Courtesy Phonesavanh Family).
  • In 1988, Boston Det. Sherman Griffiths was killed in a botched drug raid later revealed to have been conducted based on information from an informant a subsequent investigation revealed that the police had simply made up.
  • Six years later, the Rev. Accelyne Williams died of a heart attack during a mistaken drug raid on his home. The Boston Globe found that three of the officers involved in that raid had been accused in a 1989 civil rights suit of using fictional informants to obtain warrants for drug raids. In testimony for that suit, one witness testified that after realizing they’d just raided the wrong home, a Boston police officer shrugged, apologized and said, “This happens all the time.” The city settled with the plaintiffs.
  • In 1996, the Fitchburg SWAT team was already facing a lawsuit for harassing a group of loiterers when it burned down an apartment complex during a botched drug raid. The SWAT team subsequently faced a number of other allegations of recklessness and misconduct.
  • In January 2011, a SWAT team raided the Framingham, Mass., home of 68-year-old Eurie Stamps at around midnight on a drug warrant. Oddly, it had already arrested the subject of the warrant — Stamps’s 20-year-old stepson — outside the house. But because he lived in Stamps’s home, the team went ahead with the raid anyway. When the team encountered Stamps, it instructed him to lie on the floor. He complied. According to the police account, as one officer then moved toward Stamps to check for weapons, he lost his balance and fell. As he fell, his weapon discharged, sending a bullet directly into Stamps’s chest, killing him.
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