The local regional police council that on Monday settled a public information lawsuit plans to hire a part-time clerk to manage its records and handle information requests, the organization's president said Tuesday.
The decision stems from a recent unanimous vote by member departments of the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, comprised of 61 local police agencies, to subject itself to the state public records statute and settle a yearlong lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
"It’s been the whole board’s goal all along to settle this," said Carlisle Police Chief John Fisher, president of NEMLEC's executive board.
The ACLU in 2012 requested documents relating to NEMLEC's Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team and the regional council's finances, inventory and operations. In a statement, the ACLU said NEMLEC denied its request by claiming it was a nonprofit corporation, putting it beyond the reach of public records laws.
Last summer, the ACLU sued in Suffolk County Superior Court, arguing NEMLEC is subject to public records laws because it carries out law enforcement duties and is publicly funded. On Monday the ACLU and NEMLEC announced an agreement to settle the suit.
NEMLEC said it would be subject to the state public records law, and turned over to the ACLU more than 900 pages of documents, including SWAT team after-action reports, policies, financial statements and training materials.
The ACLU is reviewing the documents and plans to release them to the public.
Fisher, who has been president of the executive board for five months, said one of the complications of releasing documents was that NEMLEC functions as a mutual aid cooperative and did not compile many of the records the ACLU sought. Most of the reports, he said, were kept locally at individual police departments.
"We did feel that because we’re a mutual aid organization, the best place to get that from is the agency where whatever the emergency was occurred," he said. "That was the appropriate place. We keep some records here at NEMLEC, like attendance and the agencies that participated in emergencies. But we don’t keep the whole case."
Jessie Rossman, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said NEMLEC is the more obvious organization to handle records requests, rather than 61 individual law enforcement bodies.
"NEMLEC itself, in terms of its purpose as I understand it, is to recognize that there are efficiencies in coordinating activities among different organizations. In terms of this public records request, it’s the same idea," she said. "We were going to the organization that was coordinating, collaborating and running these operations itself."
Additionally, he said the organization's finances are available to the public because NEMLEC is a private tax-exempt nonprofit – called a 501(c)3, after the section of the tax code that defines such nonprofits – that by law must disclose certain salaries, expenses and financial details.
"It’s not that we thought the public is not entitled to that information," Fisher said.
Rossman said the ACLU was looking for detailed expense, equipment and inventory information that is not included in federal tax forms.
She also applauded the hiring of a staffer to handle requests and records, saying a point person within NEMLEC is efficient and can help people tailor their requests to cover the information they are looking for.
NEMLEC is funded by dues amounting to $4,825 from each member department. Its members include the sheriff's departments in Essex and Middlesex counties and 59 cities and towns in northeastern Massachusetts, including Andover, Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen and North Andover.
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