, Salem, MA

Local News

July 7, 2014

ACLU challenges secretive regional SWAT team

Organization wants law enforcement group's records released to public

The regional police organization now in court over its refusal to release records was established in 1963 out of a fear and distrust of civil rights advocates, antiwar activists and city dwellers moving to the suburbs, its Internet website says.

The website operated by the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council says the eight local police chiefs who formed the organization — it now has 58 members — came together in response to “the turbulent social and political struggles” that it says threatened the peace of Boston’s “idyllic” suburbs in the 1960s.

“The disorder associated with suburban sprawl as people migrated from larger cities, the development of the interstate highway system, the civil rights movement and the growing resistance to the Vietnam War threatened to overwhelm the serenity of the quaint, idyllic New England towns north and west of Boston,” NEMLEC says in an undated statement on its website, using what critics say are code words for race and class to describe the events that led the local chiefs to organize the regional agency.

NEMLEC’s 56 municipal police departments and two sheriff’s agencies in Essex and Middlesex counties — including Beverly, Danvers, Marblehead, Peabody and Wenham — each must commit to dedicating 10 percent of its resources to the organization when needed and, in return, can tap into its collective might. Member agencies also pay annual dues that in the case of Salem, amount to about $5,000 a year.

NEMLEC operates a Special Weapons and Tactics team, also known as a SWAT team, as well as a School Threat Assessment Team, a Computer Crime Unit, a regional communications operation and other services.

The document describing NEMLEC’s roots came to light after the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the organization over its refusal to release records involving the SWAT team. The suit, filed under the state’s Public Records Law in Suffolk Superior Court, seeks records involving the policies for operating the SWAT team, as well as the team’s training manuals, incident reports, deployment statistics and equipment contracts.

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