The regional police organization now in court over its refusal to release records was established in 1963 out of a fear and distrust of civil rights advocates, anti-war activists and city dwellers moving to the suburbs, its Internet website says.
The website operated by the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council sa ys the eight local police chiefs who formed the organization — it now has 58 members — came together in response to “the turbulent social and political struggles” that it says threatened the peace of Boston’s “idyllic” suburbs in the 1960s.
“The disorder associated with suburban sprawl as people migrated from larger cities, the development of the interstate highway system, the civil rights movement and the growing resistance to the Vietnam War threatened to overwhelm the serenity of the quaint, idyllic New England towns north and west of Boston,” NEMLEC says in an undated statement on its website, using what critics say are code words for race and class to describe the events that led the local chiefs to organize the regional agency.
NEMLEC’s 56 municipal police departments and two sheriff’s agencies in Essex and Middlesex counties — including Lawrence, Methuen, Haverhill, Andover and North Andover — each must commit to dedicating 10 percent of its resources to the organization when needed, and in return can tap into its collective might. Member agencies also pay annual dues, which in the case of Salem, Mass., amount to about $5,000 a year.
NEMLEC operates a Special Weapons and Tactics team, also known as a SWAT team, as well as a School Threat Assessment Team, a Computer Crime Unit, a regional communications operation and other services.
The document describing NEMLEC’s roots came to light after the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the organization over its refusal to release records involving the SWAT team. The suit, filed under the state’s Public Records Law in Suffolk Superior Court, seeks records involving the policies for operating the SWAT team as well as the team’s training manuals, incident reports, deployment statistics and equipment contracts.
The Massachusetts ACLU is seeking the records as part of a larger project by its national chapter that examined what it says is “a trend toward increasing militarization of police forces” in the United States. As the Massachusetts ACLU filed its lawsuit last month, it also released a 98-page report by its national chapter alleging that “the tactics, mentality and tools deployed by the U.S. military in wars abroad have come home to cities and towns in Massachusetts and across the nation.”
NEMLEC and the four other regional Law Enforcement Councils in Massachusetts rejected the ACLU request for records involving their SWAT teams on the grounds that they are not government agencies but non-profit corporations formed under federal IRS laws. That would shield them from the disclosure requirements of Massachusetts’ Public Records Law, which covers only public agencies.
The ACLU suit contends that all five of the councils in Massachusetts are funded entirely with tax dollars and fully staffed by local police departments, and so are subject to the state’s disclosure law.
“NEMLEC can’t have it both ways,” said Kade Crockford, director of technology for the Massachusetts ACLU’s Liberty Project, which is studying how local police departments deploy military surveillance technology and weapons. “They can’t on the one hand raid homes to serve warrants and arrest people — performing public duties with public funds — and then turn around and say their activities should be shielded from public scrutiny because they’re private organizations. One of those things has to be illegal.”
Crockford added that the militarization of police departments that the ACLU report alleges “is directly related to the war on dissent” that is suggested on the NEMLEC web page describing its original reason for being.
“The idyllic communities described in the NEMLEC website maybe were idyllic for white Vietnam War supporters but due to what appears to be the attitude of a lot of law enforcement agencies toward people who dissent, those communities at the time were likely not a welcome environment to black people or people who did not like the Vietnam War and wanted to talk about it publicly,” Crockford said. “One reason why the militarization of police is dangerous is that it gives police departments, which have that historical tendency, more firepower and technology to monitor and control dissent.
“We saw that happening in a very dangerous and scary way during the Occupy protests, when there were photographs every day all over social media of police officers who looked like Star Trek storm troopers holding M16 (military rifles) at protesters, mostly young people asking their government to reform economic policy. The Occupy movement was effectively crushed by militarized police departments nationwide. The Boston Police Department did not show the same kind of militaristic force that other police departments did, to its credit, but they have the same weapons.”
Paul Tucker, the outgoing police chief in Salem, Mass., who served until recently as a vice president of NEMLEC, said the regional police organization serves a vital purpose in providing law enforcement capabilities that individual police departments can’t afford on their own.
In Salem — a city steeped in witchcraft lore and a magnet for associated law-enforcement problems — Tucker said he calls on NEMLEC to back up his police force annually at Halloween, when tourists flock to the city. For its part, Salem provides NEMLEC’s police dive team.
Tucker acknowledged that the statement describing NEMLEC’S origins on its web page needs a second look.
“I don’t know the context of how that mission statement came to be,” Tucker said. “I will look into it, speak with board members and ask that we have a mission statement that accurately reflects today’s mission.”
Tucker also expressed hope that NEMLEC and the ACLU will reach an agreement to provide the civil rights organization with records involving the SWAT team that would not endanger the team if they were publicly released.
“Police departments are (run by) public employees,” he said. “What we do, the public has a right to know. Our operations are in the public interest. I can’t comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but generally things that do not endanger the officers, I strongly believe we should be giving to the ACLU or anybody about how the SWAT team operates.”
James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, who has written 18 books on crime and law enforcement and is writing two more this summer, disputed the ACLU premise that police have become too militarized and over-armed. But he said the state legislature should consider requiring the five Law Enforcement Councils operating in Massachusetts to be more transparent about how their SWAT teams operate.
He also agreed with Tucker that the NEMLEC webpage describing the initial need for the agency needs a rewrite.
“The nature of police and community relations was different back then,” Fox said. “Back then, it was very adversarial. Now it tries not to be.”
He added, “Sometimes mission statements are written by one or two people and never looked at again. They certainly should look at that (one). Mission statements oftentimes become archaic and outdated. Clearly, that one needs to be altered.