Oct 17 2013

Making a public records request at the Massachusetts State Police HQ

Dr. Q

On October 11, a Massachusetts state trooper shot two unarmed men at a traffic stop in Medford. The state police have claimed that the driver, a 19-year-old man, attempted to hit the state trooper with his vehicle. The driver has been charged with numerous crimes including assault with a dangerous weapon. No allegations of wrongdoing have been made against the passenger. So far, the only evidence presented to the public that either of the shooting victims did anything wrong is the word of the very state trooper who shot them.

There’s a fairly easy way to tell whether or not the trooper is telling the truth about the shooting incident. Many police departments install dashboard cameras (dashcams for short) in their patrol cruisers. These cameras create objective records of traffic stops made by police and are therefore the perfect way to determine whether or not police have acted appropriately. If the Massachusetts State Police use dashcams, the videos recorded by them would allow us to see for ourselves whether the state police acted appropriately during shooting incidents like the one in Medford or another recent incident where a state trooper killed a mentally ill man who allegedly attacked him with a pen.

I’m actually not sure if the Massachusetts State Police use dashcams. Many police departments don’t use them at all. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 61% of local police departments and 67% of sheriff’s departments used dashcams in 2007. Myong Joun, a Boston-based attorney who specializes in police misconduct, told me it’s his understanding that the state police only have dashcams installed in certain unmarked vehicles, not their standard marked vehicles.

Nevertheless, I decided to make a public records request to determine if a dashcam was installed in the vehicle of the state trooper who shot the two people in Medford and to obtain a video of the shooting if it exists. Under the Massachusetts public records statute, all records kept by local and state government agencies must be provided to members of the public upon request unless they fall under certain exemptions. Government agencies are required to respond to a request within 10 days either by agreeing to disclose the records or by denying the request and explaining which exemption the records fall under.

I decided to submit my request in person at the Massachusetts State Police Headquarters which is located in Framingham. On October 15, KT of MassOps accompanied me to the State Police HQ and we both recorded the visit with our cellphones so we would have an objective record of what happened. I would recommend bringing a camera along to anyone who decides to make public records request to a police department or any government agency at all in person. The video can serve as proof that the request was made and, if the video is posted online, what date it was made on.

When we arrived at the State Police HQ, I spoke to Steve Lane at the front desk and told him that I wanted to submit a public records request. He walked off, grabbed a form, passed it to me, and told me I needed to fill it out to make a request.

Under the public records law, a government agency cannot require a person to use a specific form to make a records request. A simple letter is considered a legitimate public records request and government agencies are obliged to accept and comply with such requests. In fact, records requests can even be made verbally with no written request at all. According to “A Guide to the Massachusetts Public Records Law,” a document published by the Secretary of the Commonwealth:

A written request is not required but is recommended. An oral request made in person (not by telephone) is permitted…

There is no specific form that must be used to request records, nor is there any language that must be included in such a request. A records custodian may provide a form, but cannot demand that the form be used.

I had already typed up my request and didn’t feel like wasting my time rewriting an almost page-long letter by hand for no reason, so I informed Lane that I had already written out my request and that he could not require me to use the form. He immediately became angry and accused me of “trying to cause a problem.” He then told me that he would get someone else to help me.

While I waited, I looked over the form that Lane had handed me. He had actually given me a form for requesting a crash report from the Registry of Motor Vehicles which means that the form wasn’t even relevant to the records I was trying to request. I pointed this out to Lane, but he insisted that I still had to fill it out.

Lane also expressed hostility toward the fact that KT and I were recording him.

Soon, I was greeted by Sergeant McGilvry. I told him that I was trying to make a records request. He told me that even though I was already present at the State Police HQ, I would need to mail my request in which is not true. When I insisted on submitting the request in person multiple times, McGilvry finally told me he would make a phone call to determine if he could accept my request. Before he walked off, he told me that I needed to “just grow up” because he was upset about the fact that I was recording him.

A couple minutes later, McGilvry came out a second time and accepted my letter without offering an apology for the incorrect information he had given me.

Although the public records statute has its flaws, it is one of the most important tools in our state for ensuring that police departments and other government agencies are transparent to the public. It’s incredibly disappointing, to say the least, that employees working at the main office for the largest police department in the state are so ignorant about the public records statute and treat people who make public records requests with such hostility even though they are required by law to accept and comply with them.

If I was treated like this by the employees of a private company, I’d probably choose to never do business with that company again. Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with the government, taking your business elsewhere isn’t an option.

I’ll post an update as soon as I’ve gotten a response to my records request from the state police.

Here’s the full text of my public records request:

To whom it may concern,

This is a request under the Massachusetts Public Records Law (M. G. L. Chapter 66, Section 10) for records from the Massachusetts State Police. As you may be aware, the Public Records Law requires you to provide me with a written response within 10 calendar days. If you cannot comply with my request, you are statutorily required to provide an explanation in writing.

I would like to know if the Massachusetts State Police use dashboard cameras (or dashcams) which are video cameras that can be mounted in cars. I would like copies of any policy documents related to dashcams.

A state trooper was involved in a shooting incident in Medford on October 11. According to news reports, the trooper shot two men during a traffic stop after the driver allegedly tried to hit him with his vehicle. If the trooper involved in the shooting had a dashcam installed in his cruiser, I would like a copy of the video and audio of the traffic stop and shooting incident as well as the events leading up to it. I would also like dashcam videos with audio from any other state police vehicles that were present at the scene of the shooting. I would also like copies of any police reports, notes, and other documentation of the shooting.

It is my understanding that the shooting incident in Medford is currently the subject of an ongoing investigation. As you may be aware, there is an exemption to the public records law for information related to ongoing investigations by law enforcement, however, be aware that this exemption only applies to a record if it can be shown that releasing the record to the public would prejudice the results of the investigation.

If you withold a record under any exemption at all, I expect you to specify which exemptions you are citing and to articulate why the exemption applies to the record in question. If you withold any records under the investigatory exemption, I would still like copies of the records after the investigation is complete. Please take steps to ensure that you do not destroy any records I have requested.

Please provide a list of all documents that my request applies to as soon as possible. I recognize that you may charge reasonable costs for copies, as well as for personnel time needed to comply with this request. If you expect costs to exceed $10.00, please provide a detailed fee estimate. I would appreciate it if you waived any fees associated with the fulfillment of this request as I believe the release of these documents is in the public interest.

I appreciate you taking time to read over and consider this public records request. I look forward to hearing back from you soon.

Note that when I typed up my request, I wrote that the shooting happened on October 15 which was the date I was submitting the request, not the date of the shooting. I realized my error while in the parking lot of the State Police HQ and crossed out the 15 with a pen and wrote in 11 which is the correct date.

Oct 12 2013

Jury sides with Framingham police sergeant in federal lawsuit

Dr. Q

The MetroWest Daily News reports:

After more than three and a half years, Framingham Police Sgt. Scott Brown said his name is finally cleared.

On Sept. 16, a federal jury dismissed claims by a former Framingham couple that Brown pointed a gun at them in April 2010.

“It’s relief,” said Brown. “It’s been hanging over me. At this point, they were just going for money.

Jorge Correia and his wife, Cathleen Runnals, filed the suit against Brown and the town, as well as several other police officers, after Brown was found not guilty in a criminal trial in May 2011 that charged him with assault and battery. A federal judge removed everyone but Brown and the town from the suit prior to the six-day trial that ended on Sept. 16.

The pair were seeking $1 million in damages from the town.

Correia and Runnals told police that Brown and his partner, then Detective Leonard Pini, pulled into the EZ Storage facility on 501 Cochituate Road, Framingham, on April 29, 2010 and Runnals confronted Brown about urinating outdoors on the property.

When Correia rushed over to see what the commotion was. Correia claimed that Brown threatened him with his handgun. Brown said he only pointed at Correia and told him to move.

After an investigation, the Middlesex district attorney’s office charged Brown with assault with a dangerous weapon and threatening to commit a crime. Middlesex Superior Court Judge Paul Chernoff found Brown not guilty after a seven-day bench trial.

In the civil trial, Runnals and Correia alleged assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision. The jury deliberated for 40 minutes before finding the town and Brown not responsible.

Neither Correia nor Runnals could be reached for comment.

Brown said he’s glad to move on.

“It still bothers me that I had to go through all of that,” said Brown. “You can’t have all that in you’re head. You have to keep going forward.”

May 23 2013

Can Massachusetts police be trusted with new “SWAT Bot?”

Dr. Q

While there are plenty of exceptions, it’s so common to see mainstream media outlets produce shoddy journalism on police technology and tactics. There are so many lazy reporters who, when they cover some controversial issue in policing or some new technology being developed or utilized by police, simply talk to some police officers or representatives of the company developing the new technology, and uncritically regurgitate whatever it is they happen to say.

I reviewed an article like this earlier this week. This front-page puff piece in The MetroWest Daily News, which was was filled with colorful pictures of six police dogs and featured little bios for each them, was based entirely on interviews with the police officers who worked with the dogs. Not a single person who was critical of the use of police dogs was interviewed.

While I was doing some research, I stumbled upon another sloppy, one-sided article about new “SWAT robots” which are being developed by a company in Maine and tested by the Massachusetts State Police (“‘SWAT robots’ soon to protect US first responders,” Associated Press, April 18, 2013). Although the article is over a month old by now, I still thought it was worth discussing especially considering it was written by the Associated Press and has been published in newspapers across the United States.

According to the article:

Sanford Police Chief Thomas Connolly, who heads a regional tactical police squad that has trained with the device, said the robot can be a valuable tool for police in dangerous situations.

“It can provide police with a huge tactical advantage,” he said.

Police nationwide regularly find themselves dealing with standoffs and kidnappings.

Last week, a heavily armed man held firefighters hostage for hours in his suburban Atlanta home before the Gwinnett County Police SWAT team stormed the house and killed the gunman. No firefighters were hurt.

Gwinnett County Cpl. Jake Smith said the SWAT robot looks like it would be useful as a safe way to approach a barricaded person. But he didn’t know how cost-effective the $98,000 price tag would be.

Robots are nothing new in law enforcement.

Bomb squads use remote-controlled robots to locate and defuse explosive devices. Camera-equipped robots are used for surveillance to keep officers out of harm’s way.

Police have been known to use robots with articulated arms to lift police shields in front of windows of houses to shield officers from gunshots fired from inside the home, said Corey Luby, of the National Tactical Officers Association, a Doylestown, Pa., organization representing patrol and special operations officers. Police also use armored vehicles as shields to get close when hostages are being held or a suspect is barricaded inside a structure, he said.

But the SWAT robot, dubbed the “SWAT Bot,” is the first robotic device Luby has seen that’s designed for specifically for ballistic shield purposes.

“It’s another life-saving tool,” Luby said. “I’d rather see a robot get hurt than a person.”

A team of officers from the Southern Maine Response Team tactical squad demonstrated in a mock drill Thursday how the robot works, with six officers walking behind the mobile bulletproof shield while approaching someone playing the role of an armed suspect.

The machine also has attachments that allow it to knock down doors or drag away cars.

So, according to the Associated Press, who only bothered to speak with representatives of the company that developed these “SWAT Bots” and police officers who have tested them, the only reason police would want these $98,000 robots which are capable of smashing down doors and dragging away cars is to keep police officers safe when they are trying to apprehend dangerous criminals.

But why should we believe that?

Whenever police adopt a new tactic or technology, they always give reasons that seem impossible to object to. The new tactic or gadget will enhance “officer safety,” it will make it easier for police to apprehend violent criminals, to prevent terrorist attacks, etc., yet police always end up using that technique or technology for purposes other than they were originally intended for.

One of the best examples is the SWAT team itself. SWAT teams were first developed in the 1960’s in order to respond to high-stakes crisis situations involving armed perpetrators who were very likely to put up violent resistance — hostage situations and bank robberies being two examples. However, SWAT teams quickly became widespread. According to a recent USA Today interview with Peter Kraska, a criminologist whose work focuses on police militarization, SWAT teams were deployed only about 2,000 to 3,000 times per year in the early to mid 80′s. That number has shot up to about 70,000 and 80,000 per year in the present.

When a SWAT team is deployed, they generally rely on a frightening tactic known as the “no-knock” raid. The purpose of a no-knock search is to surprise the occupants of a building and subdue them with an overwhelming show of force before they have an opportunity to react. Police converge on a building — usually in the middle of the night — then smash the door in with a battering ram or explosives. They either announce their presence only a few seconds before breaking the door down or do not announce it at all (hence “no-knock”). After breaking in the door, police will sometimes throw potentially lethal explosive devices called flashbang grenades into the home with the ostensible purpose of confusing and disorienting the occupants. They then storm the building and force everyone to the ground at gunpoint, handcuff them, and search the premises.

The main reason for the dramatic increase in SWAT deployment is that SWAT teams are used to serve routine search or arrest warrants especially for drug suspects. SWAT teams have even been used to investigate things as mundane as suspected underage drinking and unlicensed barber shops. Although data on this is hard to come by, it appears that a huge percentage of people targeted in these raids are not guilty of anything. According to a government study about SWAT teams in Maryland, more than one third of SWAT raids conducted in the state during 2010 failed to end with even a single arrest. SWAT teams are now seen by many police as part of normal, routine police work — not something to resort to in emergencies.

The journalist Radley Balko, who has tirelessly written about SWAT teams and no-knock raids, concludes that police

are needlessly subjecting nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders, and wrongly targeted civilians to the terror of having their homes invaded while they’re sleeping, usually by teams of heavily armed paramilitary units dressed not as police officers but as soldiers. These raids bring unnecessary violence and provocation to nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom were guilty of only misdemeanors. The raids terrorize innocents when police mistakenly target the wrong residence. And they have resulted in dozens of needless deaths and injuries, not only of drug offenders, but also of police officers, children, bystanders, and innocent suspects.

— Radley Balko, “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America,” Cato Institute, 2006, pg. 1

In Massachusetts, there have been numerous completely avoidable tragedies associated with the use of these paramilitary police units. In a recent column about the drug war in Boston, Radley Balko summarizes several of these cases:

In 1988, Boston Det. Sherman Griffiths was shot and killed during a police raid on a residence they suspected was occupied by Jamaican drug dealers. The suspected shooter, 34-year-old Albert Lewin was acquitted three years later after a series of investigations revealed widespread corruption and perjury within the department. In the raid that ended one of their colleague’s life, one BPD sergeant admitted in testimony that he had fabricated the informant whose alleged tip led to the raid in the first place. Waiting to establish probable cause — in other words, respecting Lewin’s constitutional rights — was too time consuming. Sources in BPD told the Globe that “enormous public pressure on police to arrest drug dealers . . . has led some detectives to find ‘workable’ solutions to what police see as unworkable constitutional requirements for warrants.”

The Lewin/Griffiths case also brought to light that Boston narcotics cops were routinely falsifying search warrants in drug cases — which means they were routinely raiding homes without probable cause. A Boston Globe review of 350 drug warrants found that fabrication of informants, exaggeration of probable cause, and boilerplate language was common. By one estimate, the number of drug warrants served by Boston police jumped from around 300 in 1985 to more than 3,000 by 1990.

The problem wasn’t just in Boston. In a federal trial held at about the same time, a Philadelphia narcotics cop admitted that he and his colleagues fabricated informants on hundreds of search warrants. These warrants then authorized violent forced-entry raids on private homes.

City officials, judges, and prosecutors had little interest in holding them accountable. One former high-ranking BPD officer had at one point hired an attorney to look into the growing problem of falsification of drug warrants, and to discipline officers found to have lied or used boilerplate language on such warrants, but his efforts were thwarted by the police union.

As the Boston Globe noted in a 1990 article, the residents of the city didn’t seem particularly concerned either — these raids on innocent were being conducted in mostly poor, mostly minority neighborhoods. “I don’t think the electorate is too concerned with the rights of drug dealers,” one criminologist told the paper.

And so the raids went on. In 1995, the Rev. Accleyne Williams, a 75-year-old retired minister, died of a heart attack after struggling with 13 members of a masked, heavily armed Boston SWAT team that stormed his apartment on such a raid. The police later revealed that an informant had given them incorrect information.

Doctors later concluded that Williams had literally been scared to death. One BPD source told the Boston Globe that was entirely the point. The raid team, for example, wore black ski mask hats to terrify their suspects. “The psychological impact of confronting a masked face with a shotgun pointed at you can be devastating,” the source said.

According to the Boston Herald, “a warrant authorizing the raid was approved by Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Mary Lou Moran, even though the application supporting the warrant did not specify which apartment on the building’s second floor was to be targeted. It also failed to provide corroboration of the confidential informant’s tip that a Jamaican drug posse operated out of the building.” In fact, the police officer who signed the affidavit for the warrant swore that the informant was trustworthy, even though he had previously falsely implicated a friend in a shooting three years earlier.

Another police source told the Herald: “You’d be surprised at how easily this can happen. An informant can tell you it is the apartment on the left at the top of the stairs and there could be two apartments on the left at the top of the stairs . . . You are supposed to verify it, and I’m not making excuses, but mistakes can be made.”

Another Boston Herald investigation later discovered that three of the officers involved in the Williams raid had been accused in a 1989 civil rights suit of using nonexistent informants to secure drug warrants. The city had in fact just settled a suit stemming from a mistaken raid five years earlier. According to witnesses, one of the officers in that raid apologized as he left, telling the home’s terrified occupants, “This happens all the time.”

–Radley Balko, “Boston And Militarism: The Modern Drug War,” The Huffington Post, May 3, 2013

We could also point to the police in Fitchburg who, in December, 1996, conducted a drug raid at the apartment of a suspected cocaine dealer. During the raid, officers tossed two “flashbang” grenades into the apartment. The grenades landed on a couch and started a fire that destroyed the entire apartment complex, placing the two dozen residents in mortal danger and leaving them displaced from their homes for the holiday season. None of the officers responsible for the fire were ever criminally charged. In fact, three of them were given “Community Service Awards” by the Massachusetts Police Association for the courage they supposedly showed during the fire (see Ric Kahn and Zachary R. Dowdy, “‘Iron fist’ of policing SWAT team use questioned,” The Boston Globe, May 11, 1998).

We also have the example of the Framingham Police Department, who conducted a deadly drug raid in 2011. During the raid, one officer shot and killed Eurie Stamps, a 68-year old man, while he submissively lay on the ground, waiting to be handcuffed. Stamps was not the target of the raid and was not suspected by the police of committing any crimes at all. The police and district attorney labeled the shooting as an “accident,” no charges were pressed against the officer who was responsible, and he was allowed to return to his job.

Given that SWAT teams and tactics themselves have been wildly abused, should we expect to start seeing “SWAT Bots” used in completely inappropriate situations? Will these robots supposedly created for violent standoffs be used for routine police work? Will they be used to smash down the doors of people suspected only of nonviolent, victimless offenses? The officers interviewed by the Associated Press didn’t indicate that they would, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be comforted by that.

Are there any state laws or department policies regulating how these robots may be used by police to ensure that they’re not deployed in inappropriate situations? If not, will police refrain from purchasing these robots until these laws and policies have been put in place? Will police departments be transparent about how often these robots are deployed and why? It would’ve been nice if the Associated Press had asked questions like these.

We might also consider that when there is a large protest, police frequently bring all kinds of high-tech gadgets and weaponry to issue extrajudicial punishment against anyone and everyone attending the protest. One example is the “Long Range Acoustic Devices” (or “LRAD”), a sound-based weapon that is capable of indiscriminately inflicting permanent hearing-loss. The Boston Police Department actually deployed an LRAD at Occupy Boston. The device was never used to attack demonstrators, but many felt BPD was intentionally displaying it as an intimidation tactic. Another example would be so-called “rubber bullets” which are actually metal bullets that have been coated with rubber. These bullets are often depicted by police and the media as being “non-lethal” weapons which are suitable for “crowd control” despite that fact that there have been numerous documented cases of people being killed by them.

Even when police are using these types of “crowd control” weapons to respond to actual violence, they cannot necessarily be trusted to use them appropriately. In Massachusetts, we have the example of Victoria Snelgrove, a 21-year old student who was shot to death with a pepper-pellet gun (another supposedly “non-lethal” weapon) by a Boston police officer who was firing indiscriminately at crowds of revelers after the Red Sox pennant victory in 2004.

After Snelgrove’s death, a commission was formed to investigate what had happened. The Boston Globe summarized the commission’s findings as follows:

The failures that led to Snelgrove’s death began with planning. Claiborne and his team did not examine possible scenarios for the night or issue guidelines for the use of force when preparing for the event, the Stern panel said. Both were recommended after James Grabowski was killed during the 2004 Super Bowl celebrations and for the Democratic National Convention.

The planning team also ignored advance intelligence that revelers would probably gather on Lansdowne Street and did not place specially trained riot police there, instead stationing them at Kenmore Square and near Northeastern University.

When Lansdowne Street flooded ”wall to wall” with celebrants after the game ended about midnight, officers not adequately trained in crowd control became “outnumbered and outflanked,” the report said. The commander in charge of police operations around the ballpark, Deputy Superintendent O’Toole, then incorrectly issued pepper-pellet guns to officers he knew were not certified to use the gun and took one himself, even though he, too, was not certified, the report said.

O’Toole, no relation to the commissioner; Patrolman Samil Silta, and Officer Rochefort Milien, the only officer certified to use the gun, started firing at fans on the back of the Green Monster.

The report cites one witness account that Robert O’Toole fired as if hoping the pellets hit intended targets. The two other officers fired their weapons indiscriminately, continuing even as people were climbing down.

Two people were shot in the face, 24-year-old Cambridge resident Paul Gately and Boston College student Kapila Bhamidipati. The injuries were not reported to headquarters, which could have alerted police to problems with the FN303, the report says.

Robert O’Toole, meanwhile, tried to hand his gun to Officer Steven Gil, saying, ”Stevie, are you certified on this?” Gil said no and refused to take the weapon. The commander then gave the gun to another officer, who said he was also uncertified. O’Toole replied, ”Just pull the trigger,” the report said. That officer did not fire the weapon and is not facing discipline.

A short time later, after officers had cleared much of the crowd from a section of Lansdowne Street, Milien fired two quick shots at a man he said had been throwing bottles. One of the pellets struck Snelgrove in the eye. The panel concluded that Milien fired so quickly he probably did not have time to aim properly.

An officer at the weapons supply truck on Brookline Avenue, Patrolman Thomas Gallagher, failed to treat the returned weapons as evidence, not tracking who had fired which weapon.

— Donovan Slack, “Snelgrove panel rips police,” The Boston Globe, May 26, 2005

To truly appreciate the unbelievable negligence displayed by numerous officers in the Boston Police Department, all of which contributed to Snelgrove’s death, you’d have to read the entire report yourself.

Although Snelgrove’s family was paid $10 million in a settlement with the manufacturer of the weapon police used to kill her, none of the officers responsible for her death were criminally prosecuted.

So, will these “SWAT Bots” be used for “crowd control” at the next major protest in Massachusetts? Once again, we have no indication that they will be, but it’s still important to ask questions like this in advance because we need to set limits on what kinds of weapons police have access to, when they use them, and how they use them.

The fact is, police in Massachusetts and the rest of the country have been responsible for many horrific tragedies and they are frequently not held accountable for them. Whenever police say that they need new weapons to protect themselves from dangerous criminals, this is the context that we should view every single one of their claims in. We can’t allow police to constantly stockpile new, dangerous weapons without considering the danger they pose to the public nor should we tolerate it when the mainstream media enables them by publishing poorly-researched propaganda pieces.

Jan 16 2012

News Roundup (Jan. 9 – 15)

Dr. Q

Here are the stories I tracked this past week:

  • Ars Technica reports that the Boston Police Department has finally admitted that the police officers who arrested Simon Glik in 2007 were wrong to do so. Glik was arrested and charged with “wiretapping” and several other charges after he recorded police officers making an arrest on the Boston Common. He is currently suing the city for violating his civil rights. The police officers who arrested Glik may now face discipline ranging from an oral reprimand to a suspension. They should, of course, be fired.
  • Carlos Miller, who writes the Photography is Not a Crime blog, has some more information about the Haverhill video I posted last week. You can read his article here.
  • The MetroWest Daily News reports that Val Krishtal, the Framingham police officer who arrested Onyango Obama, Barack Obama’s Kenyan uncle, earlier this for an alleged DUI has been involved in 16 on-duty car accidents. He was at fault for at least 9 of the accidents. I find it pretty outrageous that this man is still employed as a police officer. Imagine how much money his laundry list of accidents have cost taxpayers. Furthermore, how can someone with a driving record like that be permitted to stop others for alleged driving offenses?
  • The Republican reports that the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Hampden District Attorney’s Office are investigating West Springfield police captain Daniel O’Brien for alleged civil rights violations and brutality.
  • Wired reports that a TSA Air Marshall was arrested by the Boston Police after stealing an Occupy Boston protester’s phone and assaulting her, presumably because he was angry that she was recording him with the phone. The arrest took place shortly before police shut down an Occupy Boston encampment.

Also, I want to wish everyone a happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Make sure you check out this post I wrote for Cop Block for last year’s MLK Day.

Nov 13 2011

Framingham police to conduct alcohol stings

Dr. Q

If you own or work at an establishment that serves alcohol in Framingham, you may want to be wary. The MetroWest Daily News (print-edition only) reports that over the next few weeks, police will be conducting stings by sending individuals who are under 21 out to attempt to purchase alcohol.

The Framingham Police Department will be conducting alcohol compliance checks in the upcoming weeks.

An underage person, working with the police department, will be sent into businesses licensed to serve alcohol in an attempt to purchase alcohol.

Owners, managers, and employees of these types of businesses should review Massachusetts General Law C138 and the town’s alcohol regulations, police said.

Any questions should be directed to Lt. Victor Pereira at 508-532-5906.

— Norman Miller, “Framingham alcohol sting forthcoming,” The MetroWest Daily News, November 13, 2011, p. B2

My own personal view is that this is a complete waste of time. People may not like the idea of alcohol being sold to people who are legally considered “minors,” but doing so is still a victimless offense.

There are literally millions of violent crimes and property crimes in the United States that go unsolved every year. The FBI’s UCR statistics for 2010 show that in Massachusetts, 30,553 violent crimes (these include murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) were reported to the police, but police only arrested suspects in 12,987 cases. 153,905 property crimes (burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson) were reported to the police, but police only arrested suspects in 20,037 cases.

If police want to actually promote public safety, they should stop wasting their limited resources pursuing victimless offenses and try to apprehend suspects for some of these unsolved crimes that actually have suffering victims.

Sep 30 2011

The “terror plot” that wasn’t

Dr. Q

Rezwan Ferdaus

Two days ago, FBI agents arrested 26-year-old Rezwan Ferdaus on terrorism charges in Framingham. Ferdaus, a resident of Ashland, stands accused of plotting to wage “jihad” against the U.S government and “kafirs” (i.e., non-believers) by providing “material support” to Al-Qaeda and by attacking the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol Building.

Ferdaus allegedly planned to fill remote-controlled model airplanes with plastic explosives and fly them into the two buildings using GPS tracking devices. After the explosives went off, Ferdaus planned to have two small teams of men go on shooting sprees at the buildings with AK-47s. The “material support” charge against Ferdaus stems from the fact that he also allegedly modified several mobile phones so that they would send an electrical signal through a wire when called. The electricity could apparently be used to remotely detonate improvised explosives devices if one of the phones was properly attached to one.

Pretty scary stuff, isn’t it? Who would have thought that a terrorist mastermind could possibly be lurking in Ashland, a small Massachusetts town with a population of just 16,593? “Things like this make you wonder if you ever really know your neighbors, or anyone else for that matter,” mused MetroWest Daily News columnist Julia Spitz.

And yet, upon closer inspection, Ferdaus’s plot reveals itself to be nothing but smoke and mirrors. Ferdaus, as it turns out, had no connections to actual terrorists, none of the skills necessary to pull off the attack he was planning, no access to the weapons necessary for the plot, and no money to buy the necessary supplies. The only people involved in the plot other than Ferdaus were two anonymous undercover FBI agents and an anonymous “cooperating witness” (i.e., an informant) who posed as terrorists to convince Ferdaus to carry out the plot. All the guns, explosives, and model airplanes were directly provided by or indirectly paid for by the FBI (using your tax money, of course). The FBI even paid for the storage space that Ferdaus was using to stockpile the items and helped Ferdaus get to Washington D.C. to do “surveillance” of the buildings he planned to attack. None of the phones Ferdaus modified were ever used to detonate explosives nor did they ever end up in the hands of Al-Qaeda members.

Carmen M. Ortiz, the United States attorney in Boston, actually went so far as to say in a public statement that “The public was never in danger from the explosive devices.”

What’s more, it appears to be very unlikely that Ferdaus’s plan would have worked if he had been given a chance to try putting it into action. According to an Associated Press article, “Counterterrorism experts and model-aircraft hobbyists said it would be nearly impossible to inflict large-scale damage of the sort Ferdaus allegedly envisioned using model planes. The aircraft are too small, can’t carry enough explosives and are too tricky to fly, they said.”

FBI agents spending months trying to goad an individual into committing a terrorist attack that they otherwise would not have the means to carry out is not a new phenomenon. As Glenn Greenwald summarizes on his Salon.com blog:

Time and again, the FBI concocts a Terrorist attack, infiltrates Muslim communities in order to find recruits, persuades them to perpetrate the attack, supplies them with the money, weapons and know-how they need to carry it out — only to heroically jump in at the last moment, arrest the would-be perpetrators whom the FBI converted, and save a grateful nation from the plot manufactured by the FBI.

Last year, the FBI subjected 19-year-old Somali-American Mohamed Osman Mohamud to months of encouragement, support and money and convinced him to detonate a bomb at a crowded Christmas event in Portland, Oregon, only to arrest him at the last moment and then issue a Press Release boasting of its success.  In late 2009, the FBI persuaded and enabled Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, a 19-year old Jordanian citizen, to place a fake bomb at a Dallas skyscraper and separately convinced Farooque Ahmed, a 34-year-old naturalized American citizen born in Pakistan, to bomb the Washington Metro.  And now, the FBI has yet again saved us all from its own Terrorist plot by arresting 26-year-old American citizen Rezwan Ferdaus after having spent months providing him with the plans and materials to attack the Pentagon, American troops in Iraq, and possibly the Capitol Building using “remote-controlled” model airplanes carrying explosives.

None of these cases entail the FBI’s learning of an actual plot and then infiltrating it to stop it.  They all involve the FBI’s purposely seeking out Muslims (typically young and impressionable ones) whom they think harbor animosity toward the U.S. and who therefore can be induced to launch an attack despite having never taken even a single step toward doing so before the FBI targeted them.  Each time the FBI announces it has disrupted its own plot, press coverage is predictably hysterical (new Homegrown Terrorist caught!), fear levels predictably rise, and new security measures are often implemented in response…

— Glenn Greenwald, “The FBI again thwarts its own Terror plot,” Salon, September 29, 2011

Don’t get me wrong: if the allegations against Ferdaus are accurate, then he’s a reprehensible individual and I would never try to suggest otherwise. But time and resources are limited and we would be much safer if that time and those resources were spent pursuing people who actually pose a threat to the public.

There are millions of violent crimes and property crimes in the United States that go unsolved every year. If there are really so few people who have both the motivation and means to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States that the FBI actually has to manufacture its own terrorist plots in order to make terrorism arrests, then it’s time for the government to stop spending so much money on unnecessary “counter-terrorism” programs and instead invest it in apprehending suspects for some of these unsolved crimes that actually affect our society.

You can download the criminal complaint against Rezwan Ferdaus here (.pdf format) or read it in the Scribd embed below:

Complaint Affidavit