Privacy SOS

ACLU wins public records battle with SWAT team, but we shouldn’t have had to sue in the first place

Last summer my office put out a report about the militarization of the police in Massachusetts. It is an important document but it is missing some crucial data, namely records from Massachusetts SWAT teams about the character and frequency of operations they carry out each year. The report lacked these data because when we asked the five regional law enforcement councils in the state for information about their SWAT operations, they claimed they were private entities and not subject to the public records law.

We disagreed, and filed suit. Today, attorneys at the ACLU of Massachusetts and representing the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) settled that lawsuit. We won. Nearly two years after filing our initial information requests, NEMLEC agreed that it is subject to the public records law and handed over nearly one thousand pages of documents responsive to our initial request.

Lots of law enforcement operations, including drug task forces, operate as 501(c)3s, not official government agencies. They should all take notice that their records are subject to public transparency laws, too.

Our victory today is a win for transparency and accountability, but it shouldn't have taken a lawsuit to get these documents. Despite our claim to be the cradle of liberty, our state has one of the worst open records laws in the nation. Cases like this one demonstrate why the Massachusetts state legislature must pass public records law reform. Among other necessary changes, the reforms would provide attorneys fees for litigants who win lawsuits related to public records disputes with government entities. If the law reform had been enacted when we filed our requests with NEMLEC and the other SWAT teams, they may have simply complied with the law and given us the documents instead of risking a long and costly legal battle.

We are currently analyzing the hundreds of pages of documents about SWAT operations we finally obtained after a year in court. Stay tuned for our assessment of what's in those many pages, and to look at the documents themselves.

Accountability can only come after transparency. It shouldn't have taken a lawsuit to get us here, but it did.

Take action to reform the public records law.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.