I reported last year that many of Massachusetts’s SWAT teams were claiming to be private corporations that were immune from public records requests. Last month, the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC), the corporation that overseas that region’s SWAT teams, settled with the Massachusetts ACLU and released records related to how SWAT teams are used. A number of publications have since been sifting through the documents.
The results are similar to what we found in other situations in which these records have been made public — the widespread use of the kind of militarized tactics, weapons, and gear that was once reserved only for emergency situations, when lives were at immediate risk. Most notable: Of the 21 times a NEMLEC SWAT team was deployed to serve a search warrant for drugs, the SWAT team reported finding drugs just five times.
Just one of the 79 SWAT deployments in 2012-14 — assistance with the search for the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing — involved terrorism. Other SWAT actions during that period show no hostage situations, no active shooters and only 10 non-suicidal barricaded subjects.
About half of the remaining cases involved everyday and often mundane police activity, including executing warrants, dealing with expected rioting after a 2013 Red Sox World Series game, and providing security for a Dalai Lama lecture. In one mission, 15 SWAT team members roved through Salem’s Halloween celebrations looking out for unspecified “gang-related activity,” but were warned by their commanders to maintain a “professional demeanor” given that “everyone has a camera phone and you don’t want to be on YouTube or the news later.”
The remaining 37 SWAT actions were either proactive drug operations, initiated by local police, or suicide response operations . . .
More than half of the SWAT teams’ drug operations were initiated at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. Furthermore, of the 22 narcotics operations detailed in the documents over the two years, 14 included warrants authorizing SWAT teams to conduct “no knock” raids and four authorizing “knock and announce” raids — both of which are forceful entry options that have made national headlines for the accidental killings, injuries, and trauma they can produce.
As for those suicide calls . . .
“I was a Boston police officer and was on some of the first SWAT deployments in the 70s. Those were only for armed barricaded subjects in buildings, the reason we were deployed were for hostage situations or threats to harm others,” Nolan said. “That’s why they were established. What we’re beginning to see is that in small towns like where NEMLEC has jurisdiction, their officers want to be on SWAT teams, so they’re looking for any justifiable way to get on.”
“It’s certainly counter-productive to have a fully-armed militarized SWAT team respond to potentially suicidal suspects who are looking for ways out like suicide-by-cop situations,” contended Nolan. “I don’t know why you couldn’t just have someone respond who knows negotiation strategy techniques, without the tanks and the body armor.”
. . . [I]n the vast majority of cases . . . overkill appears to be an underlying theme …
-In October 2012, NEMLEC dispatched 28 members from 10 different city and town departments—their alliance spans from Groton and the New Hampshire border to the north, to Newton and Waltham on the southern side, and to Gloucester and Newburyport up the coast—to confront a “barricaded subject armed with a knife” who had a “history of mental health issues.”
-In January 2013, NEMLEC was activated to assist with a “no knock day time search warrant … for narcotics (heroin).” Since the target had a “very extensive criminal history” and a “confidential informant” allegedly reported a handgun in the apartment, Lowell police were given three teams with a total of 30 troops, the “platoon” packing everything from battering rams and long arms to attack dogs and tasers. Together with the medics and crisis negotiators in tow, the posse totaled nearly 40 people.
-Responding to a suicidal subject in Gloucester who was armed with a knife back in September 2013, Gloucester police were complemented by 23 members of NEMLEC SWAT, four crisis negotiators, two K-9 officers, and nine incident management specialists—plus two additional SWAT associates from the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office for good measure.
-In September 2013, NEMLEC called an astonishing 110 bodies from SWAT and their affiliated Regional Response Team (RRT) to Dunstable after reports rung out of a “missing 57 year old male who had a history of depression and suicidal thoughts.” After approximately three hours of searching, during which NEMLEC “deployed ATVs, mountain bikes and personnel on foot to conduct line and grid searches,” local police found the man in question deceased on an abandoned property with self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
Of the seemingly innumerable frivolous deployments and expenses, one NEMLEC action on October 16, 2012 stands out as the most absurd. Documents show that “to assist Medford PD with security, dignitary protection and crowd control issues with the visit of the Dalai Lama,” the council dispatched 34 personnel to the Elks Lodge near the Kurukulla Center. While four members comprising an “immediate action team” sat in a “grey van” for the rest of the day, the “remaining members of the SWAT team were assigned to crowd control, if needed.” As anyone familiar with the Lama’s repertoire may have predicted, special units were not ultimately required to quell the horde, and after eight hours on the clock, the team was dismissed.
In the late 1980s, the death of Boston police officer Sherman Griffiths during a botched SWAT raid to serve a drug warrant spurred investigations that uncovered a culture of militarism, deceit, and corruption with the drug squads of the Boston Police Department. Things didn’t improve much. In March 1994, the Rev. Accelyne Williams was killed by police during a botched SWAT raid on the wrong house. As the New York Times reported later that year, subsequent investigations blamed Williams’s death on “a bad tip, bad police work, a lack of supervision and inadequate regulations governing confidential informers.” Two year later, a SWAT team in Fitchburg, Massachusetts burned a building to the ground when a flash grenade caught fire during a drug raid, leaving 24 people homeless.
More recently, in 2011, a SWAT team in Framingham shot and killed 68-year-old Eurie Stamps during a drug raid on his home. The police were looking for the son of Stamps’s wife. Stamps, who was unarmed, wasn’t suspected of any criminal activity. The officer shot him was cleared of any culpability. And in 2012, also in Fitchburg, an FBI SWAT team took a chainsaw to the door of a terrified woman and her three-year-old daughter. They had the wrong apartment.
But as Kade Crockford of the Massachusetts ACLU points out, there’s a problem here even if the police manage to avoid killing innocent grandfathers and pastors, or chainsawing the door of the wrong apartment.
To truly understand how the drug war functions in Massachusetts, we must take a hard look at the big picture—not just the SWAT raids that end in violent death . . . We must look closely at the hundreds of daily SWAT raids nationwide targeting suspected drug users or dealers, even when they end in less spectacular kinds of misery and trauma. These cases might not make for bleeding headlines on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, but they constitute the bulk of the war on drugs in Massachusetts and nationwide, and they are also destructive—to individuals, to families, to communities, and to the relationship between police and the people they serve.
These records open up an important window onto the ground truth of the war on drugs in our state. Despite the countless raids on suspected drug users and dealers conducted by NEMLEC and the many other SWAT teams in Massachusetts, drugs like heroin are more widely available and harmful than ever before. Militarized police tactics aren’t the way to fix the opiate crisis in the Bay State.
The NEMLEC data is similar to data from other jurisdictions, such as Maryland, or the figures published a couple years ago by the national ACLU, all of which show that SWAT teams are primarily used to serve warrants on people suspected of drug crimes, and most of the time don’t turn up enough contraband to merit even a felony charge.
The justification for the use of this kind of force is usually officer safety. It’s arguable that tactics like no-knock raids actually make warrant service safer for police officers. But even if that were true, the justification itself is revealing. SWAT teams were once used only in emergency situations, when lives were in immediate danger. That is, they were primarily used to protect civilians. Today, they’re primarily used to protect police officers, often at the expense of the safety and civil liberties of civilians. Unfortunately, this is part of a pattern in modern policing, and it isn’t limited to SWAT teams.