Privacy Law

Massachusetts SWAT teams claim immunity from open records laws

Some Massachusetts police departments belong to regional law enforcement councils that claim to be private corporations not subject to the state’s open records law, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Such claims have helped stymie the ACLU’s efforts to study police militarization in the state, the Washington Post’s The Watch blog reports.

The ACLU found that 240 of Massachusetts’ 351 police departments belong to such councils, which are funded by member agencies and overseen by an executive board, usually made up of police chiefs from those agencies.

In addition to operating regional SWAT teams, such councils also facilitate information- and technology-sharing among member agencies and perform other specialized police functions, such as crime scene investigations, crisis negotiations and rapid response efforts.

Though they are funded by local and federal taxpayer money, composed exclusively of public law enforcement officials and carry out traditional police functions, at least some of those councils are incorporated as 501(c)(3) organizations that claim to be immune from the state’s open records laws, the ACLU says in its report (PDF).

“Due to the weakness of Massachusetts public records law and the culture of secrecy that has infected local police departments and law enforcement councils, procuring empirical records from police departments and regional SWAT teams in Massachusetts about police militarization was universally difficult and, in most instances, impossible,” the report says.

The ACLU is now suing at least one of those councils, known as the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, for the SWAT team records it is seeking, a press release reports..

Jessie Rossman, a staff attorney for the Massachusetts ACLU, said the same government authority that allows such officials to carry weapons, make arrests and break down the doors of private citizens should require them to comply with open records requests.

“You can’t have it both ways,” she told the Post.

Jack Collins, general counsel for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, could not be reached for comment, The Watch says.

See also:

ABA Journal: “How did America’s police become a military force on the streets?”

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