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Massachusetts SWAT Teams Claim They're Private Corporations, Immune To Oversight 534

Posted by Soulskill
from the you-can-trust-us dept.
New submitter thermowax sends a report on how Massachusetts SWAT teams are dodging open records requests by claiming to be corporations. From the article: As it turns out, a number of SWAT teams in the Bay State are operated by what are called law enforcement councils, or LECs. These LECs are funded by several police agencies in a given geographic area and overseen by an executive board, which is usually made up of police chiefs from member police departments. ... Some of these LECs have also apparently incorporated as 501(c)(3) organizations. And it's here that we run into problems. According to the ACLU, the LECs are claiming that the 501(c)(3) status means that they're private corporations, not government agencies. And therefore, they say they're immune from open records requests. Let's be clear. These agencies oversee police activities. They employ cops who carry guns, wear badges, collect paychecks provided by taxpayers and have the power to detain, arrest, injure and kill. They operate SWAT teams, which conduct raids on private residences. And yet they say that because they've incorporated, they're immune to Massachusetts open records laws. The state's residents aren't permitted to know how often the SWAT teams are used, what they're used for, what sort of training they get or who they're primarily used against.
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Massachusetts SWAT Teams Claim They're Private Corporations, Immune To Oversight

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 27, 2014 @08:51AM (#47331791)

    Citizen, you will be sent to a re-education camp. Cease resisting and comply with the security officer's request.

  • Private entities? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 27, 2014 @08:55AM (#47331813)

    So, if they're not government entities, then they're private entities, and as such not entitled to qualified immunity for their actions, right? So if they damage a house or hurt an individual, they're on the hook for damages (and criminal actions), and can't claim immunity from the courts...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 27, 2014 @08:56AM (#47331817)

    in history class in a thousand years. That one by one, "private" corporations installed themselves, cancer-like, into the public money stream while at the same time claiming to be "private".

    While the population 3D printed coffee cups and masturbated to Mars fantasies.

    • by DUdsen (545226) on Friday June 27, 2014 @09:25AM (#47332041)
      It's strangely enough not the first time America was under corporate rules, The original Boston tea party did not actually target the British government but "The Company" an organization that looks a lot like the modern multinationals with the exception that it actually employed mercenary armies and ran most of the British Colonies. But then again modern megacorps are getting closer to the same power and structure as the East India Companies" as time progresses and will be even more powerful and even more entangled with the government then the old East India Companies if the trend continues.

      Another strange detail of history is that Adam Smith's "Wealth Of Nations" were written to explain exactly how dangerous those kind of organizations were. And yet those now advocating a return to Mercantilism claims to be followers of Adam Smith ideals.
      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        Another strange detail of history is that Adam Smith's "Wealth Of Nations" were written to explain exactly how dangerous those kind of organizations were. And yet those now advocating a return to Mercantilism claims to be followers of Adam Smith ideals.

        There's nothing strange about it any more than that The Prince is used as a manual instead of a cautionary tale, as it was intended. Any technology left lying around unused gets picked up and used by anyone who happens along and finds it to be useful.

      • by rahvin112 (446269)

        The East India company was a bit different situation. It was officially a crown corporation and IIRC was an agent of the crown. This absolved it of all legal liability in any English legal sphere where the monarchy of England had legal sway. Because it was an agent of the crown it could raise armies and even still it's property would be defended by the British military forces.

  • by hubang (692671) on Friday June 27, 2014 @08:56AM (#47331821)
    If that's how they want to play it, the solution is simple. No taxpayer funding.

    Wasn't "No taxation without representation" coined in (what became) the Commonwealth?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 27, 2014 @08:56AM (#47331823)

    Charge 'em with breaking and entering, assault and battery, and conspiracy to do those things. Guys, are you sure you're not with the government?

    • by i.r.id10t (595143) on Friday June 27, 2014 @09:06AM (#47331907)

      Better, possession of un-taxed NFA items.

      Especially if anything is select fire and made after '86 since the only non-mil and non-LEO that can possess such are FFL holders with the SOT to deal in NFA stuff....

    • by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Friday June 27, 2014 @09:19AM (#47332009) Homepage Journal

      My thoughts precisely.

      Since they're saying they aren't a government entity, then they do not have governmental authority to supersede the law, which makes them nothing more than brigands.

      Also, as a private entity, that means they can be sued into bankruptcy. Which I, for one, would love to see.

    • by L4t3r4lu5 (1216702) on Friday June 27, 2014 @09:34AM (#47332117)

      harge 'em with breaking and entering, assault and battery, and conspiracy to do those things. Guys, are you sure you're not with the government?

      Massachusetts has a pretty strong Castle doctrine [mass.gov]

      I'm not saying you should shoot Police officers, lawfully executing a warrant. I'm just pointing out that these guys don't seem to want to be considered Police officers.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    They want the monetary and security advantages of being paid with taxpayer money without having to comply with the legal requirements of a taxpayer funded government organization. If they are allowed to get away with that, would anybody here like to guess here where it will go next?

  • by Lumpy (12016) on Friday June 27, 2014 @08:58AM (#47331839) Homepage

    FBI raid and arrest everyone in the SWAT team, put them in prison and charge them with Racketeering. Do it very public, invite the media and make these scumbags a lesson to cops across the country that they work FOR the citizens and must act as "public servants" and not a street gang.

    • by DarkOx (621550) on Friday June 27, 2014 @09:18AM (#47332007) Journal

      Except that at the federal level we have an FBI and DOJ that spend much of their time advising local law enforcement to if not outright lie, at least not to advertise their capabilities and methods. Then we have all kinds of federal money being appropriated at the federal level and handed to the Homeland Security to distribute to local law enforcement specifically to help them militarize.

      In short I don't really really see what you suggest happening, not unless in a surprise upset Gary Johnson is elected president in 2016. Its much more likely the FBI will help intimidate and silence anyone who makes to much noise about this issue.

  • Ahem.....

    "I've got a bad feeling about this"....

    Thank you...

  • by putaro (235078) on Friday June 27, 2014 @09:04AM (#47331887) Journal

    Government officials and organizations have immunity from lawsuits for the most part, however private corporations are not. I'm sure there are any number of potential lawsuits that could be brought against them. I'd say it would be fun to watch them try to dance around the subject but it's not, really. It's sickening.

    • by DarkOx (621550)

      *BINGO* the right loves to co-opt libertarian arguments about privatization to create these 'public-private' partnerships specifically because they create legal gray areas where tons of power, weapons, and money are moved outside accountability.

      Nobody knows what laws apply to these groups, and it takes decades and dollars the public does not have to get it sorted out in the courts.

      As libertarian when I hear public private partnership I know to be truly scared; to they point where a new public agency sounds

  • Wait, what? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gstoddart (321705) on Friday June 27, 2014 @09:07AM (#47331915) Homepage

    Now they're private police forces and not subject to oversight?

    Fine, then they're not law enforcement officers, and have far fewer room to operate legally, and any deaths and the like means they go to jail, right?

    "You can't have it both ways," Jessie Rossman, a staff attorney for the Massachusetts ACLU, told me in a phone interview. "The same government authority that allows them to carry weapons, make arrests, and break down the doors of Massachusetts residents during dangerous raids also makes them a government agency that is subject to the open records law."

    Exactly. If you're private corporations, you're not cops, you're vigilantes and operating outside of the law. If you're officers of the law, you're subject to oversight.

    The argument that the LECs in Massachusetts are private corporations and therefore immune to the state open records law was made by Jack Collins, the general counsel for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.

    And, once again, the 'police' have no interest in upholding the law, just covering their own asses.

    If this doesn't get tossed out by a court or the law makers, this is a terrible precedent. They're asking for the right to do anything they want without oversight or responsibility.

    And it sounds like they've got a long history of doing things which they'd prefer to keep hidden from oversight -- like accidentally killing people.

    In the immortal words of NWA ... Fuck tha police.

  • corporations are people, my friend....

    people with guns and flashbang grenades [salon.com].

    • by gstoddart (321705) on Friday June 27, 2014 @09:15AM (#47331965) Homepage

      So, they're vigilantes then?

      Sorry, but if it looks like a cop, and shoots people like a cop, and can arrest people like a cop, it needs oversight like a cop.

      If people think police departments are terrible at investigating their own wrong doing now, wait until they're private corporations and can simply say "piss off".

      If these clowns want to be private corporations, fire them all, and then tell them they're only legally allowed to be mall cops.

      If they want to be cops, they're part of whatever level of government gives them the legal authority to operate, and subject to the applicable laws.

      Any refusal to hand over the records should lead to dismissal, or criminal charges.

  • Plot of Continuum (Score:4, Interesting)

    by GiMP (10923) on Friday June 27, 2014 @09:09AM (#47331929)

    This is basically the plot of Continuum [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuum_(TV_series)], which is currently in its third season.

    I know this is a tangent, but there is a pretty good intersection of interests here on Slashdot between science-fiction and rights of the people versus government. The show makes it interesting because the viewer is meant to basically hate both sides, plus it has time-travel.

    *shrug*

  • It's that simple. If they are not properly commissioned law enforcement officers then they are impersonating police and it is perfectly okay to answer deadly force with deadly force especially when they break into your home.

  • Massachusetts has pretty strict gun laws. If this is a private corporation, well, I don't think its members should be having fully automatic weapons with 30 round mags.

    Mind you, I don't think ANY police should have weapons that the general public can't, but that's a separate issue.

  • by OneSizeFitsNoone (3378187) on Friday June 27, 2014 @09:24AM (#47332037) Journal
    Such a coincidence, just today I read this: http://www.zerohedge.com/news/... [zerohedge.com] "10 Facts About The SWATification Of America That Everyone Should Know" "The number of SWAT team raids in the United States every year is now more than 25 times higher than it was back in 1980."
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by causality (777677)

      Such a coincidence, just today I read this: http://www.zerohedge.com/news/... [zerohedge.com] "10 Facts About The SWATification Of America That Everyone Should Know" "The number of SWAT team raids in the United States every year is now more than 25 times higher than it was back in 1980."

      The best way to change that is to legalize all personal drug use. If the War on Drugs was successful at accomplishing any of its stated goals then we could have a debate about this, but it isn't, and no honest person who looks into the matter would conclude otherwise. Anyone who wants to do drugs can easily obtain them.

      The only things we can control are whether criminal gangs or legitimate businesses will profit from this, and whether law enforcement gets to keep its single biggest excuse for militariz

  • They might be right (Score:5, Informative)

    by Orgasmatron (8103) on Friday June 27, 2014 @09:27AM (#47332055)

    I work for local government (in a different state). A number of cities and counties around the state have banded together to manage custom software projects, etc, using a legal device known as a "Joint Powers Agreement".

    The JPA creates a legal entity, much the same way that a contract creates a trust. This entity is essentially a delegation of authority from the various local government entities that constitute it, so it has some strange properties. For example, it has bank accounts, employs staff, rents an office, etc, but does not file tax returns.

    It also, as far as our lawyers can tell, is exempt from all data practices laws. This isn't the end run you might seem to think. If a data request comes in to the entity, the staff there tells them to contact the relevant member entity. The requestor can then ask me (for example), and I am obligated to collect the data from my systems, and from the organization.

    Basically, the legal reasoning is that the entity doesn't own anything, it merely possesses things on the behalf of the member entities. This is also why it doesn't file tax returns.

    I don't know the legal situation in Massachusetts, but these are principles that derive from western jurisprudence in general, rather than from the laws of my state, so I suspect it is pretty similar. No idea where the 501(c)(3) thing comes in. I suspect that is more about being able to accept donations than anything else.

    Personally, I think the citizens of that state should ask their legislature to pass a law to require such entities to respond to information requests, if that entity is involved in police operations. It is in the public interest to be able to request data from a consolidated entity of this nature, rather than having to deal with each individual member entity.

    • by swb (14022) on Friday June 27, 2014 @10:16AM (#47332431)

      Sunshine laws need to be updated. Regardless of whether the JPA entity owns anything or not, it provides ample opportunity to hide and obfuscate information, whether physically in JPA controlled offices or by misdirection ("We don't have that, contact XYZ county." "No, that information is controlled by the Joint Fubar corporation, we don't keep those records."). And more often than not such situations would probably result from general bureaucratic morass as much as malice.

      I also find it curious that someone would even *ask* whether they were exempt from data practices laws. Why ask if you don't intend to disobey them? The intent of data practices laws is to promote open government, any organization controlled by the government should follow the rules as if they were a governmental organization.

      The government should not ever have the ability to form organizations they can delegate authority to that are immune from laws regulating the government.

  • by Required Snark (1702878) on Friday June 27, 2014 @09:39AM (#47332159)
    Remember when VP Cheney said he didn't have to comply with record requests because he not in the Executive, Legislative or Judicial branch of government? This is copy of his playbook.

    It's become a rather common excuse. These days it is typically mixed up with corporate claims of privacy. Essentially corporate secrecy is used as a way if short circuiting the rule of law. That's how the police departments that use Stingray cell phone interception technology to shred constitutional protections avoid admitting what they are doing: they have a confidentiality clause with the company who makes the device. Same thing with fracking chemicals: they can pump any toxic crap that they want to into the ground because it's a business secret.

    So where were all the right wingers when this was going down during the Bush era? You know, the ones who are now claiming that Obama is destroying the constitution? Massive amnesia and/or massive hypocrisy?

    (Personally I am furious with Obama because he has continued the blatantly unconstitutional policies of the Bush years, but at least I am not lying through my teeth and supporting one executive while screeching like a stuck pig when a democrat does the same kind of crap.)

    • by cs668 (89484)

      Well, I am someone who normally voted conservative. I voted for Obama specifically because I did not like the Executive Branch power grabs of the Bush administration.

      Basically, I believed the Obama's bullshit about an open government and I've never felt so duped.

      I learned my lesson though, I will never vote for a republican or democrat again. They are both assmunches.

    • by swb (14022)

      Personally I am furious with Obama because he has continued the blatantly unconstitutional policies of the Bush years, but at least I am not lying through my teeth and supporting one executive while screeching like a stuck pig when a democrat does the same kind of crap.

      But are you furious enough to dispense with your partisan dislike of the Republicans to stop voting for Democrats, too, when present and nearly certain future policies and actions are no different?

      At this point, Obama has had plenty of oppor

    • Laws become more and more invasive and complex to match the size and density of populations. It is not political theory but a simple observation of fact. With large, denser, more complex, cities and suburbs a bad actor can do such great harm that much more scrutiny has to be applied. Imagine some really hot nuclear dust being tossed out a window in such a way that a large part of a major city was off limits to humans for the next 200,000 years. Or it might be a bacteria or viral attack. The Oklahoma co
  • by IP_Troll (1097511) on Friday June 27, 2014 @09:56AM (#47332283)
    None of the people quoted in the article seem to have any idea what they are saying. The most disturbing thing is that the ACLU is whining about this as if this was a legitimate argument. It is not.

    Here are a few of the most poignant reasons why this argument fails:

    First and foremost 501(c)(3) is an IRS regulation that means a corporation does not have to pay income tax. 501(c)(3) is NOT a method by which a corporation maybe formed.

    Second, states not the federal government create the rules for creating a corporation.

    Third, there are many different types of corporations, one of those types is a municipal corporation. Just because you have something called a corporation does not mean it is private. Municipal corporations are subject to FOIA

    Fourth, corporations can register with the IRS as 501(c)(3) non-profits, but to use it as a tool to hide information would be incredibly stupid because 501(c)(3) status means you must release more information about your internal workings than a normal private corporation would need to disclose.


    Either the ACLU is whining because they don't have the sharpest knife in the drawer dealing with these FOIA requests, or this is a calculated move to drum up donations.
    • IRS as 501(c)(3) non-profits, but to use it as a tool to hide information would be incredibly stupid because 501(c)(3) status means you must release more information about your internal workings than a normal private corporation would need to disclose.

      Not true in a lot of cases. I've been on the board of a 501c3 and I'm also a corporate accountant. Our normal disclosure requirements for the non-profit were fairly minimal and certainly less than most of the companies I've been involved in. You are correct in some cases but not universally so.

  • by Rigel47 (2991727) on Friday June 27, 2014 @10:55AM (#47332775)
    ...in Massachusetts. Seriously, no joke. After the marathon bombings there was an unending outpouring of adulation for the "first respondahs." You'd think they had, at enormous losses, turned back the Taliban from invading Cambridge and raping the childrens. Not, in actuality, shut down the entire city while they raced around with giant hardons in a largely bungled effort to locate a bleeding, unarmed boy hiding in someone's boat in their back yard (whom the homeowner found and frankly should have clubbed to death on the spot). In the process of arresting this unarmed miscreant they unleashed a barrage of fire on the boat very nearly killing the kid in the process.

    Meanwhile folks are still running around with their "Boston Strong" shirts on in one of the lamest displays of self-congratulatory faux heroism that I've ever seen .

    The cops and firefighters are milking it with giant billboards touting some BS about being "on the home team", trying to get people to donate to some police fund. It's pathetic.

    This 501(c)3 nonsense is just further evidence of their warped perspective of what it is "to protect and serve."
  • by goodmanj (234846) on Friday June 27, 2014 @11:51AM (#47333367)

    This conversation's going nowhere because we've started with a one-sided news report and all of us agree that this is bullshit. It's chest-high full of straw men in here. So here's an attempt to describe the SWAT teams' legal rationale for this. It comes from reading the news report, reading the Law Enforcement Councils' website, and living in Massachusetts so I know how local government works. Plus a lot of "what would I do if I were evil" speculation.

    Massachusetts has very weak county government. Local law enforcement, even in rural areas, happens at the town level. Many small towns have like one cop car and two cops, and can't afford a crime lab, a drug lab, a K-9 unit, and whatnot. The county provides specialist services to all the towns within it, but SWAT teams are not one of these services. It makes total sense that local towns would form a cooperative association (the LECs) to pool their limited SWAT resources.

    From what I read on their websites, it looks like SWAT personnel don't work for the LEC. They're ordinary town cops who're assigned duty to work with other town cops through the LEC. That is to say, the LEC has no law enforcement authority, but the individual cops do. The LEC provides equipment storage, networking, and shared training for the town cops. As far as I can tell, legally, the LEC is just a place to park the SWAT van, a seminar room for Powerpoints, and a phone tree.

    It's not a private army, I bet they'll say, it's a professional association, just like how your city's dentists all get together at the country club first Tuesday of the month. All the personnel are employed by the towns. All the equipment belongs to the towns. You want the public records for your recent 3 a.m. visit by the battering ram boys? Talk to your town.

    Now, clearly, this is all bullshit. But it seems to me to be well-crafted bullshit, created by the SWAT teams' lawyer buddies, and we're not going to make it go away unless we appreciate it for what it is.

  • by Yakasha (42321) on Friday June 27, 2014 @12:46PM (#47334003) Homepage
    From NDAA 2007:

    (a) TRANSFER AUTHORIZED .—(1) Notwithstanding any other provision of law and subject to subsection (b), the Secretary of Defense may transfer to Federal and State agencies personal prop- erty of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is

    (emphasis mine)
    If you're not a government agency... what are you doing with all that excess military equipment acquired via the 1033 program?

    References: http://www.mass.gov/eopss/agen... [mass.gov]
    https://www.justnet.org/other/... [justnet.org]
    http://www.nps.gov/legal/laws/... [nps.gov]

What this country needs is a dime that will buy a good five-cent bagel.

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