NEMLEC: Hey, isn't this organized crime?

August 1: NEMLEC searches for a pair of unarmed carjackers in Melrose. Hypothetically a department head in your town government – we’ll say the sanitation department – instructs his or her employees to grab their gear, hop in their city vehicles, and go do work on the taxpayer's dime for a private corporation. This is classic and obvious corruption. What if every town in the region’s sanitation department was also sent to work for the same private corporation run by the very department heads that sent them to do the work? This would not only be massive corruption, it could only be called organized crime.

The North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) is the organizing group that coordinates police activities by 59 police and sheriff's departments across 58 communities in Massachusetts. NEMLEC even has its own SWAT team and a BearCat armored vehicle. But, despite their large role in policing, NEMLEC claims to be a private corporation.

On June 24, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts sued NEMLEC for withholding documents after the council claimed they are exempt from Massachusetts Open Records law because they are a private corporation:

NEMLEC operates as a regional law enforcement unit, yet when the ACLU of Massachusetts requested records from NEMLEC, the agency responded that it is a private, non-profit organization, wholly exempt from public records laws.

"NEMLEC can't have it both ways," said ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney Jessie Rossman. "Either it is a public entity subject to public records laws, or what it is doing is illegal."

"Private individuals can't own automatic weapons, or even get product information about armored vehicles," Rossman said. "NEMLEC operates with all of the privileges of a law enforcement agency, and like a law enforcement agency, it should be accountable to the public."

NEMLEC’s “who we are” webpage states that they are "a non-profit corporation." Their “what we do” page explains that “Each executive officer commits resources from his/her law enforcement agency to assist other members in an effort to increase and improve their individual and collective capabilities, and to provide effective policing services.”

NEMLEC’s “How we operate” page states that “Member police chiefs govern and operate NEMLEC, many of them holding leadership positions on the Executive Board, and/or within Operational Units and Committees, the vehicle through which NEMLEC organizes many of its administrative, technical, financial, and management functions.”

According to their own site, NEMLEC member police department’s police executive officers are pledging public recourses under their jurisdiction to a private company run by either themselves or other police executives. That is no different than the hypothetical sanitation department scenario. In fact NEMLEC, is even worse because instead of just theft and abuse of public resources, NEMLEC is coordinating violent paramilitary operations while masquerading as a policing agency.

NEMLEC in Melrose.On August 1, NEMLEC participated in the lockdown of the City of Melrose where residents were ordered to remain inside their homes because two unarmed carjackers were in the area. The corporation's employees walked through resident’s yards armed with dogs ands rifles to inspect sheds without warrants. These searches did not locate the alleged carjackers.

Wicked Local reported:

A SWAT team from NEMLEC set up outside of Robinson Funeral Home on Main Street, near the pharmacy. Along with local police, the SWAT team spent hours canvassing streets and backyards in the area, also checking sheds and garages that were left open.

The same article goes on to explain that police executives pay tax money directly to the private corporation:

The cost of the NEMLEC support is covered by Melrose’s dues to that agency — $4,000 per year — Chief Lyle said.” If each member police departments and the member Sherriff’s department pay NEMLEC $4,000 each per year then NEMLEC receives $236,000 per year direct from taxpayers.

NEMLEC forgot to tell at least one Lowell police officer that he is being rented out to a private company. NEMLEC’s failure to inform this officer allows him to earnestly believe that he is still a “law enforcement officer” when he helps lock down cities and conduct warrantless searches for NEMLEC instead of knowing he is an armed private contractor.

In July, I made multiple visits to Lowell in my attempt to attend the hearing for Lieutenant Siopes for his involvement in Alyssa Brame’s death in-custody. While in town I spoke with Lowell several police officers and noticed that every marked police car has a NEMLEC logo on it. It seems police department aren't just pledging money, people, and resources to NEMLEC, they are also providing advertising.

The officer I spoke with stressed how important NEMLEC is because of the need to mobilize effectively in the face of major disasters like the Boston Marathon bombing lockdown. The officer acknowledged that NEMLEC has a public perception problem because of their military style tactics and gear, but pointed out that “It is what it is you know? People in uniform trying to do their jobs.” Unfortunately, this means they are wearing their police uniforms while working for a private corporation.

According to the FBI's website:

The FBI defines organized crime as any group having some manner of a formalized structure and whose primary objective is to obtain money through illegal activities. Such groups maintain their position through the use of actual or threatened violence, corrupt public officials, graft, or extortion, and generally have a significant impact on the people in their locales, region, or the country as a whole.

NEMLEC runs violent police activities as a private corporation, using funds and resources handed out by corrupt officials and, as the Lowell police officer who has been deployed by NEMLEC said, “Honestly I think they are awesome – very structured, very structured.” Clearly NEMLEC is a structured enterprise running on public money diverted by influential public officials, and thus NEMLEC meets the exact FBI definition of organized crime.

Existing police departments are already tasked with enforcing the law and the state police are already a large force which can be brought to bear on a large local issue, so I'm unsure what necessary function NEMLEC serves. If NEMLEC does provide a needed service, then it should be a public agency accountable to the public and bound by all the normal regulations that any other law enforcement agency is bound by. What it should never be is a private company.

Note: NEMLEC's website is currently "under construction," so some of the links in this article may not work, however, you can see a fairly recent snapshot of their site at the Internet Archive here. Some of the information on snapshot is out of date, but the quotes I referenced should all be the same.

Wednesday links (8/6/14)

Why Springfield police should get dashboard-cameras. Lowell hired private investigators to spy on an ex-library aide who filed a legal claim against the city.

Judge says Worcester police illegally searched vehicle in cocaine bust.

Massachusetts is one of 15 states sharing drivers' images with a controversial CIA "terrorism" database.

How US policy is responsible for the influx of Central American migrants.

The sharing economy will only thrive if the government doesn't strangle it with regulations.

"Native advertising" troublingly blurs the line between journalism and advertisements.

FBI looking into death of woman in Lowell police custody

The FBI is reviewing the circumstances of the death of 31-year-old Alyssa Brame, who died of alcohol poisoning while in the custody of the Lowell police, according to The Lowell Sun. Brame was arrested by Lowell police on January 12, 2013 for allegedly soliciting sex, fell unconscious, and ultimately died while in police custody. The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute anyone for Brame’s death, but an internal Board of Inquiry review by the police department found that six police officers and two civilian employees violated department policies, possibly contributing to Brame’s death. Police left Brame alone in a cell for over an hour after she lost consciousness. When she was finally checked on and found unresponsive, another 15 minutes passed before anyone called 911. The Board of Inquiry report notes that the department “has had a long-standing policy of ‘At no time will an unconscious prisoner be placed into a cell. Unconscious prisoners shall be examined by trained medical individuals as soon as possible.’”

Several of the employees involved in Brame’s death were recommended for disciplinary action by Police Superintendent William Taylor. The City of Lowell offered deals to the five employees facing the harshest punishment, which allowed them to accept lesser punishment instead of facing hearings. Lieutenant Thomas Siopes, who was in charge the night Brame died, was the only one to reject the deal offered to him, which included a demotion to patrolman and a 180-day unpaid suspension.

Now, according to the Sun:

The FBI is investigating whether federal civil-rights violations were committed by Lowell police officers the night a woman died in police custody last year, sources told The Sun.

The FBI's probe began in recent weeks and the FBI has requested documents from the city pertaining to Alyssa Brame's death in a Lowell cell block in January 2013, including the internal Police Department report on the incident, a source said.

...

Special Agent Greg Comcowich, an FBI spokesman, said the FBI does not confirm or deny whether it is conducting investigations.

Police Superintendent William Taylor and City Manager Kevin Murphy declined to comment.

...

Attorney Gary Nolan is one of the attorneys defending Siopes, who was recommended for termination for his actions the night Brame died.

Nolan said Taylor informed those involved with Siopes' disciplinary hearing that began last week that the FBI was reviewing the cell-block death. He said neither he, nor Siopes, nor two other officers he defended before the Board of Inquiry have been contacted by the FBI.

"While we have received no formal confirmation of a federal investigation, we certainly welcome any independent review of this case," Nolan said in a statement.

Nolan also said: "As the first week of testimony showed, the Board of Inquiry report is flawed and full of omissions ... There is a lot more to this case, and we look forward to telling the whole story."

Alice Swiridowsky-Muckle, Brame's mother, said she was thrilled to hear the FBI was investigating the circumstances surrounding her daughter's death.

"I think it is the best thing to happen to this point," Swiridowsky-Muckle said. "It is almost like Christmas to me.

"It helps knowing my daughter's death is not going to get swept under the carpet and some officers are not going to sleep easy tonight knowing it is not going to get swept under the carpet."

Siopes currently faces termination by the city for his role in Brame's death. A hearing to determine what disciplinary action he should face is currently on hold and is set to resume on August 19.

When the hearing is over, Eric Slagle, the director of Development Services who is serving as hearing officer, will make a recommendation to City Manager Kevin Murphy about what disciplinary action should be taken against Siopes. The decision will ultimately rest with Murphy.

You can read about the first four days of the hearing here.

Lowell police superintendent cross-examined during second day of lieutenant's hearing

The hearing for Lowell Police Lieutenant Thomas Siopes, whom the city seeks to fire for his role in the death of Alyssa Brame, continued yesterday, with Siopes's counsel cross-examining Police Superintendent William Taylor and attempting to poke holes in the city's case. On January 12, 2013, Brame was arrested by Lowell police for allegedly soliciting sex, fell unconscious, and ultimately died of alcohol poisoning while in police custody.

The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute anyone for Brame’s death, but an internal Board of Inquiry review by the police department found that six police officers and two civilian employees violated department policies, possibly contributing to Brame’s death. Police left Brame alone in a cell for over an hour after she lost consciousness. When she was finally checked on and found unresponsive, another 15 minutes passed before anyone called 911. The Board of Inquiry report notes that the department “has had a long-standing policy of ‘At no time will an unconscious prisoner be placed into a cell. Unconscious prisoners shall be examined by trained medical individuals as soon as possible.’”

Several of the employees involved in Brame’s death were recommended for disciplinary action by Police Superintendent William Taylor. The City of Lowell offered deals to the five employees facing the harshest punishment, which allowed them to accept lesser punishment instead of facing hearings. Siopes, who was in charge the night Brame died, was the only one to reject the deal offered to him, which included a demotion to patrolman and a 180-day unpaid suspension.

I was not able to attend the second day of the hearing, but The Lowell Sun was there to report on it:

Under questioning from Perroni during Siopes' disciplinary hearing, Taylor acknowledged that both Sgt. Michael Giuffrida and Officer William Florence, certified emergency medical technicians (EMTs), medically assessed Brame and determined she was not in medical distress.

Taylor agreed with Perroni that Florence had evaluated Brame in the holding cell and determined she had normal breathing and her chest was rising and falling.

He also confirmed to Perroni that Giuffrida had seen Brame after Siopes had seen her on the stairway and determined there was a rise and fall of her chest and that she opened and closed her eyes due to the activity around her.

Perroni also went one-by-one through five other police officials who were in Brame's presence the night she died. Taylor acknowledged none of them determined Brame was in need of medical assistance.

Furthermore:

Taylor had written in a document proposing discipline regarding Brame's death that there is "clear and strong" distinction between someone who is sleeping and someone who is unconscious.

Taylor, who testified he stood by the statement, also testified it is not a difficult determination to make.

"This determination you say is entry level and basic got by all these people, right?" Perroni asked.

"The ones you mentioned, yes," responded Taylor.

Earlier during cross-examination, Taylor said of Brame: "I think it was obvious she was unconscious."

Perroni asked Taylor if any training was provided to Lowell Police Department personnel to help them recognize the difference between someone falling asleep from intoxication and unconsciousness.

"Not that I'm aware of," said Taylor, who acknowledged that such training could be helpful.

The questions Siopes's counsel asked are a continuation of the themes laid out on Tuesday in the opening statement by Gary Nolan, another of Siopes's attorneys. Nolan suggested it wasn't obvious to Siopes that Brame needed medical attention as the city is suggesting and that the police department failed to provide adequate training to its officers.

According to the Sun, the second day ended with Siopes's counsel still in the middle of cross-examining Taylor. Based on what I saw at the first day, I expect the hearing to last at least a few more days.

When the hearing is over, Eric Slagle, the director of Development Services who is serving as hearing officer, will make a recommendation to City Manager Kevin Murphy about what disciplinary action should be taken against Siopes. The decision will ultimately rest with Murphy.

You can read our coverage of the first day of the hearing here.