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ACLU critical of how SWAT teams are used

Members of a SWAT unit arrived at a Cambridge location in 2014 to participate in training.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File

Newly released records show that tactical units with the state's largest regional law enforcement organization are being used far too often for drug raids, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, in what it calls an inefficient use of resources in the war on drugs.

But the documents show that the tactical units are used for a variety of incidents, the law enforcement coalition's president said, and scrutinizing the drug raid reports doesn't tell the whole story.

A special weapons and tactics team is called in when a situation is deemed dangerous and the "SWAT team makes the scene safe," said Carlisle Police Chief John C. Fisher, president of the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council.


According to the documents released Tuesday, the council, which provides specialized police operations including SWAT to communities in Middlesex and Essex counties, deployed its tactical units 79 times between August 2012 and June 2014.

Thirty-three of those deployments were to serve warrants, and 21 were for drug-related raids.

"The single-most reason for deployment wasn't for public safety concerns, but for drug offenses," said Jessie Rossman, staff attorney with the ACLU, who said that the figures mirror a national trend.

The council provided about 900 pages of documents Tuesday after the ACLU filed a lawsuit in June 2014. The data also listed a variety of military-style equipment the agency has, including two armored BearCat vehicles that together are worth more than $386,000, night-vision goggles, grenades, and high-tech firearms.

Besides search warrants, the agency's SWAT and regional response teams have aided in crowd control, suicide prevention, search and rescues, arresting armed suspects, and other incidents that accounted for 57 percent of all deployments.

Such deployments are becoming more standard, said Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police officer who is now a criminology professor at Merrimack College. But in some cases — such as when a person is suicidal — Nolan questions whether a tactical unit is needed.


"In some of these situations it's like swatting a mosquito with a sledgehammer," he said. "It will continue to be used in a manner more and more routine. We don't want military-style equipment used" with local law enforcement.

However, the ACLU's primary concern is the use of SWAT teams in drug-related search warrants — and the relatively small drug seizures that result from them.

Of the drug-related search warrants the agency's SWAT team assisted in executing, the tactical unit reported recovering drugs only five times, Rossman said. In other cases, only small amounts of drugs were recovered by the SWAT team, the ACLU found. "This is not an efficient or effective method to address the drug crisis," he said.

Fisher said measuring drug seizures isn't a fair assessment, however. He said the police departments his agency helps often find "all kinds of things" that might not be listed in reports by the SWAT team, but would be listed in a local agency's report.

''Once that scene is safe, it's not uncommon that our guys are long gone before the narcotics are discovered,'' he said.

Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University's Institute on Race and Justice, said there should be a conversation about which warrants should be executed by local police departments.

"People are getting warrants served on them every day, but you don't need SWAT teams to always do that," said McDevitt. "How are people evaluating when to bring in a unit like SWAT so that it maximizes the unit and minimizes the cost?"


Fisher said his tactical unit officers ensure that scenes are safe, and local police typically only reach out when a matter reaches a certain level of dangerousness.

"It needs to be vetted," Fisher said. "Is it dangerous? Is it something officers may not be trained to do? Law enforcement regionalization is a best practice — it's not antiquated."

The Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council is a consortium of 58 police and sheriff agencies that serve a host of communities, including Cambridge, Gloucester, Lowell, Salem, and Somerville.

"They provide resources to the community in their catchment area that otherwise they would not have access to," said former Plainville police chief Ned Merrick.

Member police departments designate at least 10 percent of their resources to council units, and must pay $4,825 annually in membership dues. The agency's budget as of the fiscal year that ended June 30 was $388,458.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Jan Ransom can be reached at jan.ransom@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.