Ferguson shows it's time to demilitarize the police

West Springfield police have two M79 grenade launchers which can be used to fire tear gas. You've probably heard by now about the indiscriminate use of tear gas by police in Ferguson, Missouri by now. Although the police in Ferguson have been justifying their violent crackdown as necessary to prevent rioting and looting, it's clear to anyone who's been paying attention that the police are targeting the peaceful protesters who are angry about the police shooting of Michael Brown and the journalists who have shown up to report on them.

In two notable incidents involving tear gas, cops gassed reporters from the TV news station Al Jazeera America. In another, cops gassed an eight-year-old child.

In light of the events in Ferguson, I wanted to point everyone to a recent story we did about how the police in West Springfield, Massachusetts have two grenade launchers which they say are for firing tear gas canisters.

The grenade launchers were obtained in 1996 through the federal government's 1033 program, which transfers excess military property to police departments throughout the country free of charge, the same program which is likely responsible for much of the military-style weaponry you've seen police in Ferguson using on TV.

West Springfield Police Chief Ronald P. Campurciani has characterized the grenade launchers as antiquated, obsolete, inaccurate, and dangerous (the tear gas canisters used with them can start fires), and has said they have never been used for law enforcement purposes in the past and are unlikely to ever be used in the future.

While Chief Campurciani has said the grenade launchers will probably never be used, it would be better if we didn't have to take his word for it. He might change his mind if West Springfield becomes the site of a huge demonstration against police violence. The next police chief might also decide to put the grenade launchers to use. It would be better if the police simply did not have access to these weapons in the first place.

Even if the weapons were not considered antiquated by the police, they still wouldn't serve any legitimate purpose. Tear gas is an inherently indiscriminate weapon and has a strong likelihood of affecting bystanders even when it's being used in response to actual violence. (The same is true of many other “crowd control” weapons police use including the LRAD, a sound weapon that can cause permanent hearing loss to people within its vicinity. The Boston police have one of these.)

Although tear gas is legal for use by police, it's a barbaric enough weapon that it's actually banned for use in war by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 which the US is a party to, the same treaty that Obama, after drawing his “bright red line,” wanted to bomb Syria for violating.

The events in Ferguson have shown that when we allow police to stockpile military gear, “crowd control” weapons, and surveillance equipment, we're setting ourselves up for trouble. Hopefully the protests and violent police responses playing out in Ferguson will wake people up to the fact that it's time to demilitarize the police.

Governor Deval Patrick has suspended Massachusetts' participation in the 1033 program before and he could do it again. That would at least be a start.

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 (7/9/14)

Massachusetts law doesn't adequately protect people who have been falsely accused of crimes:

Patients sue Massachusetts for access to medical marijuana.

Man who spent more than three years in prison for a wrongful conviction sues Massachusetts for half a million dollars.

Police in West Springfield have two grenade launchers, but can't give a straight answer why.

TSA says you can't take an electronic device on a flight if the batteries are dead because... terrorism!

Tuesday links (7/1/14)

Former Springfield police officer who beat man unconscious asks the Supreme Judicial Court to void his assault conviction because the jury wasn't told about "police privilege." Family in court to determine how much money they are owed from brutality lawsuit against Springfield police officer.

Massachusetts veteran finally gets a doctor's appointment at the Bedford VA hospital -- two years after he died.

Cambridge is scrapping the proposed regulations that would have shut down Uber and rewriting them.

More info about the ACLU's public records lawsuit against Massachusetts SWAT teams.

Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rules that survivors of the Abu Ghraib prison may sue a military contractor who was involved in torture and abuse in US court.

Why birth control pills shouldn't require a prescription from a doctor.

Thursday links (6/26/14)

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to sign bill prohibiting police from holding suspected undocumented immigrants for the federal government's S-Comm program. Why it's important that SWAT teams in Massachusetts are transparent.

Speaking of SWAT teams, the Brookline police posted this advertisement for their SWAT team on Twitter the other day:

Radley Balko points out that "Brookline has a population of about 60,000, and as of 2012 hadn’t seen a murder in six years."

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that police can force a suspect to decrypt their electronic devices without violating the Fifth Amendment.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that police cannot search a person's cellphone just because they've arrested that person, and must usually obtain a warrant.

The Supreme Court ruled against the internet service Aereo.

Newly released drone assassination memo points to another secret drone memo.

Wednesday links (6/25/14)

ACLU sues local SWAT team after they claim they're a private organization not subject to the state public records law. Uber isn't the problem; taxi regulations are.

Yahoo News has tried to track the 600+ Mine Resistant Armored Vehicles (MRAPs) the Pentagon has given to local police departments since 2013, including 2 here in Massachusetts.

Federal judge rules that the no-fly list violates the US Constitution.

Obama administration finally releases the memo arguing they can assassinate US citizens with no due process.

Why did the government send a SWAT team after Khairullozhon Matanov?

Last Friday, Quincy resident Khairullozhon Matanov was arrested at his apartment by a SWAT team and several FBI agents as part of the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. According to The Boston Globe:

Matanov was charged with obstruction of justice by destruction, alteration, and falsification of records or documents in a federal investigation, which carries a punishment of up to 20 years in prison. He was also charged with three counts of making false statements to agents in a terrorism investigation, each of which carries a punishment of up to eight years in prison.

Matanov, a friend of the Tsarnaevs, is accused of lying to investigators and deleting files from his computer. There are no allegations that he played a role in the bombing.

The government had been conducting aerial surveillance of Matanov since shortly after the bombing and had interviewed him a number of times over the past year before deciding to charge him.

One interesting aspect of this story that hasn't gotten enough attention is the government's decision to conduct a forced-entry raid on Matanov's home when they arrested him. As Kade Crockford of the Privacy SOS blog writes, "The FBI spent considerable resources monitoring Matanov from the sky and physically at his apartment for over a year, but despite officials’ familiarity with him and his home, they sent a SWAT team to break down his door at four in the morning to arrest him."

The crimes Matanov is accused of are all nonviolent. Even if Matanov lied to investigators and deleted relevant information from his computer, it sounds as though he was otherwise cooperative, so what was the point of breaking down his door at 4 A.M. and freaking out his neighbors?

Was it to intimidate Matanov? Or was it a piece of theater to make Matanov seem scarier to the public than he really is?