Pubdate: Sun, 12 Jul 2015
Source: Eagle-Tribune, The (MA)
Copyright: 2015 The Eagle-Tribune
Author: Douglas Moser


Local police chief defends regional SWAT teamA small number of local
SWAT team incident reports, among dozens made public last week,
illustrate the threats police departments face in executing so-called
high-risk search and arrest warrants versus the concerns of civil
liberties advocates, who criticize the use of heavy armored police
units to serve warrants.

In the case of a Haverhill man, police suspected he was selling
prescription drugs, had at least two guns in his home, and had shot
into a woman's car multiple times in the city. But he is confined to a
wheelchair, cannot get out of bed and needs a catheter to empty his

Do you call in the heavily-armed SWAT team to make the arrest, or do
your regular uniformed officers handle it?

Police on Dec. 11, 2013, called the Northeastern Massachusetts Law
Enforcement Council, of which Haverhill and most other nearby
communities are members, SWAT team for help accessing the man's Water
Street apartment.

Police knew the man was disabled and confined to a wheelchair,
according to the NEMLEC incident report. They also believed he fired
five rounds into a woman's car earlier that day because he thought she
stole painkillers from him, and that he had at least two handguns in
his seventh floor apartment.

Thirty officers responded for NEMLEC with equipment including body
armor, a Bearcat armored vehicle, two police dogs, tear gas,
flash-bang grenades and rams.

Police drew up a plan, positioned teams inside the apartment building,
and knocked on the door. The man's roommate came out and was turned
over to Haverhill police. SWAT officers went into the apartment and
called out to the man, who told them he would come out of his bedroom.
When he did not appear, a shield team of officers went in and found
him struggling to get out of bed.

They allowed him to get dressed and remove his catheter before
arresting him. A search turned up a loaded revolver between the man's
bed and the wall, according to the report.

The six local reports were among 79, covering mid-2012 to mid-2014,
released to the American Civil Liberties Union's Massachusetts chapter
last month to resolve a public records lawsuit. NEMLEC also released
copies of its financial documents, budgets, inventory and policies.

Criteria must be met

ACLU staff attorney Jessie Rossman said the proliferation of SWAT team
use, and the heavy equipment and armored vehicles they employ, are
symptoms of decades-long federal drug policy.

"In northeastern Massachusetts, like the rest of the country, the
single most common reason for deployment was the decades old failed
war on drugs," she said.

Indeed, of the six SWAT deployments locally during that two-year time
period covered in the released reports, half were for drug arrests,
including another in Haverhill in 2014 and one in Methuen in 2012.
Roughly 30 percent of the total calls were for drug warrants.

Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon said NEMLEC has a list of criteria
that must be met before the SWAT team can be deployed, including
whether guns are involved, the violence or criminal history of
suspects and the existence or possibility of barricades.

"Once you reach a number of those points, the recommendation is to use
a specially trained team for the safety of the people inside and the
police," he said.

He also disputed that SWAT teams are overused for certain searches and
warrants, as civil liberties advocates charge, because of the criteria
that must be met. Additionally, deployed SWAT teams are under the
command of that community's police chief.

"As long as there's proper oversight from the city, I don't see a
problem," he said.

The 2014 Haverhill incident included reports from the federal Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that its undercover
agents had bought guns from a Lafayette Avenue man whom city police
suspected of selling heroin and cocaine, according to the NEMLEC
report. SWAT members threw a flash-bang grenade into the second-floor
apartment and arrested several suspects. Three young children were in
the third-floor apartment at the time.

The 2012 Methuen drug raid occurred on Pelham Street, and police
arrested a man suspected of selling oxycodone pills. They believed he
had a firearm. The SWAT team used a ram to enter the suspect's
third-floor apartment and tossed a flash-bang grenade before entering.

Methuen police, who said they found about 30 pills in the home,
described the suspect to The Eagle-Tribune at the time as a "mid-level
to low-mid-level dealer."

The other three local SWAT calls were for one man with a gun who
previously had been the subject of a SWAT raid and who in 2012
barricaded himself inside a house in North Andover, threatening to
shoot at police, and for suicidal men with mental health issues in
Andover and Methuen in 2013.

The Methuen deployment was called off after city police resolved the
standoff themselves.

Situations can be de-escalated

Of the 79 incident reports NEMLEC released, 13 were calls for
barricaded people and 12 for suicidal people. In many cases, the
NEMLEC SWAT teams safely took people into custody. In two cases,
suicidal men were found dead.

"Some of the after action reports show frightening public safety
crisis, where they disarmed people without firing a bullet," Rossman
said. "Sometimes these SWAT teams are better trained to de-escalate
these situations."

Another 33 incidents, the plurality, were for serving warrants, and 10
incidents were calls for security or crowd control.

Solomon said overall, Methuen uses NEMLEC mostly for missing person
searches. The organization will dispatch dozens of officers, along
with dogs and search equipment.

"For a search, we tend to err on side of caution," he said. "If we
find them before they get here, no harm. But if we don't, they can get
15, 20, 40 people here. It's so advantageous."

The ACLU in 2012 requested a range of documents from NEMLEC, including
incident reports, financial documents and equipment and vehicle
inventory. NEMLEC, which is a nonprofit organization funded and
staffed by member police departments, at the time said it was not
subject to the public records law.

The ACLU sued in Suffolk Superior Court in June 2014 to get NEMLEC to
release the documents, arguing the group is subject to public records
laws because it used public money and public officials to perform law
enforcement actions.

NEMLEC, which is comprised of 61 member law enforcement agencies
including police departments in Lawrence, Methuen, Haverhill, Andover
and North Andover, voted earlier this year to settle the lawsuit and
provide the documents, which the ACLU of Massachusetts posted on its
website earlier this week.
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