About a year ago, I wrote about a bizarre situation in Massachusetts in which many of the state’s SWAT teams had incorporated, which they argued made them private corporations that were immune to open records requests.
The Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) has settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and agreed that its records are subject to the state public records law. Today, the parties asked the Suffolk County Superior Court to enter a proposed judgment reflecting that understanding. This effectively ends a dispute that began more than two years ago when NEMLEC initially refused to provide the public with information about its activities. The motion is currently awaiting a judge’s approval.NEMLEC, a group of 61 police and sheriff departments in Middlesex and Essex counties, oversees several operational units and receives government grants and taxpayers’ dollars. Its Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team uses armored vehicles, automatic weapons and combat gear to carry out military-style operations, including forced entries into homes to serve search warrants.In 2012, the ACLU of Massachusetts requested records relating to NEMLEC’s SWAT team and other operations as part of its efforts to document regional policing operations and the militarization of police. NEMLEC refused to allow access to those records, claiming that its records were outside the reach of the public records law. The ACLU of Massachusetts filed suit in state court in June of last year to obtain the documents.NEMLEC ultimately reversed its position and agreed that its records are subject to the public records law. In keeping with its revised position, NEMLEC released more than 900 pages of documents about its activities to the ACLU of Massachusetts, including SWAT team after-action reports, policies, financial statements and training materials. The ACLU of Massachusetts is reviewing the documents and will release them to the public, along with in-depth analysis, shortly.
In the end, this is a victory for transparency. But it’s a begrudging sort of victory when it takes a lawsuit and a year for a police agency to finally agree that it’s subject to the same laws and transparency requirements as any other government entity.