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Criminal Justice

Hiding Police Technology Behind Nonprofit Organizations

Some police-funded organizations are now claiming that, because they are private corporations, they are immune from public record requests. The ACLU highlighted the issue in a recent report on police militarization.

The majority of police departments in Massachusetts belong to “law enforcement councils” (LECs). 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.” They also operate SWAT teams and “facilitate technology and information sharing.”

Some of the LECs have incorporated as 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. This has allowed them to resist the ACLU’s public record requests, “[h]iding behind the argument that they are private corporations not subject to the public records laws.” This contributed to making the ACLU’s efforts to procure empirical records from Massachusetts police departments “universally difficult and, in most instances, impossible.”

“You can’t have it both ways,” Jessie Rossman, a staff attorney for the Massachusetts ACLU, told the Washington Post. “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.”

These secrecy maneuvers could also hide new surveillance technologies from public debate. For example, METROLEC, the largest LEC in the metropolitan Boston area, recently applied to the Federal Aviation Administration to obtain a drone license.

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