from the sell-swords dept
I'm no conspiracy theorist, generally speaking, but I have to admit the apparent systematic militarization of domestic police forces throughout the country scares the hell out of me. You've seen it, too. Officers, once clad in powder blue uniforms, are suddenly dressed in blues that are so dark they might as well be black. Small-town police forces are gobbling up military-style equipment for god-knows-why. Regulatory agencies are sending out armed forces to rescue wildlife. Whatever your politics, it's pretty clear that there is some kind of imbalance on display here.
The good news, however, is that these are public servants we're talking about here, so they're subject to a certain degree of transparency and information requests from John Q Public. Right? Right!?! Wrong, at least according to SWAT teams in Massachusetts, which are bizarrely claiming protection from such requests due to Massachusetts SWAT teams now being part of a private corporation.
As part of the American Civil Liberties Union's recent report on police militarization, the Massachusetts chapter of the organization sent open records requests to SWAT teams across that state. It received an interesting response. 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.Yes sir, law enforcement just went private. It makes no sense, of course, because these LECs are in charge of oversight for local law enforcement agencies, LEC employee lists include all manner of public servants, and LEC SWAT teams are used to conduct raids on the citizenry. All of this is funded, by the way, with public money. Our money. That this money is funneled in from the public coffers of local police agencies doesn't make a lick of difference. The argument is essentially that if an LEC uses our money to set up its own oversight authority and then slapps a 501(c)(3) label on it, it no longer has to respond to public records laws. And, per the ACLU, this ain't some small-time problem we're discussing here.
Approximately 240 of the 351 police departments in Massachusetts belong to an LEC. While set up as “corporations,” LECs are funded by local and federal taxpayer money, are composed exclusively of public police officers and sheriffs, and carry out traditional law enforcement functions through specialized units such as SWAT teams. Police departments and regional SWAT teams are public institutions, working with public money, meant to protect and serve the public's interest. If these institutions do not maintain and make public comprehensive and comprehensible documents pertaining to their operations and tactics, the people cannot judge whether officials are acting appropriately or make needed policy changes when problems arise.Which, of course, is the entire point. They're hiding from public scrutiny behind the veil of incorporation, which may rank right up there among the most cynical things a government organization has ever done. It's a move one might find in the corporate republic of some dystopian novel. I say that because it's truly not as though the police departments in question are attempting to claim some kind of exemption within public records law. They're just putting up a stone wall.
“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. “They didn’t even attempt to claim an exception,” Rossman says. “They’re simply asserting that they’re private corporations.”Now, the ACLU is suing, claiming that these LECs have received both local and federal funding from government tax coffers, but others are suggesting this attempt to claim privatization is not without its pitfalls for those same law enforcement organizations. Pretending to be a private corporation to avoid freedom of information requests is one thing, but wouldn't that also mean giving up other things as well?
The claim by the Massachusetts LECs in response to the ACLU's demand under Freedom of Information laws is a cute attempt to twist corporate law with public authority law, but it is sheer, unadulterated nonsense. They can be one or the other. They cannot, by definition, be both.You can already hear the tortured back peddling that would be on display should such a situation arise, can't you? But that's just trying to get some fun out of what is clearly a claim by public institutions that cannot be allowed to stand. Allowing this move to be successful would only open the door to every other public institution that desired private oversight status to employ the same technique, the result of which would be public tax money propping up an officially private corporate government in which transparency is granted at that same corporate government's pleasure and never otherwise. It's the germination of an unholy mixture of corporatocracy and fascism and it would be the undoing of the very concept of the American government.
The curious question is that if a cop claims to be exercising police authority on behalf of a private entity, does he lose qualified immunity for his actions, and subject himself to the same tort law as anyone else? It would seem so, not because he’s right about working for an LEC private corporation, but because he subjectively disavows the protections he would otherwise have if he functioned under the authority of the state. He stripped himself of immunity, as well as authority.