Jun 8 2013

Excellent news: Massachusetts’ highest court upholds probable cause, judicial oversight standard for extended GPS tracking

Dr. Q

By Kade Crockford, Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project

This article was originally posted at the Privacy Matters blog on June 7, 2013. It has been reprinted with permission.

It’s been quite a week, what with the Guardian newspaper’s Glenn Greenwald publishing a leaked NSA surveillance order to Verizon, and then last night’s revelations about how the military has directly tapped in to the servers of major internet companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook. What began as a major controversy about phone and internet records has exploded into the biggest surveillance story of a decade, littered with scores of privacy-bombshells.

Particularly in light of these disclosures, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Commonwealth v. Rousseau decision, released this week, deserves wide discussion.

Quite simply, Rousseau cuts to the heart of the question raised by the NSA surveillance scandal: does the government need to have any individualized suspicion to extensively spy on us, or have we done away with that most basic tenet of our constitutional protections against unreasonable government searches?

Thankfully, the court answered the right way.

In short, the state’s highest court ruled that the government must have probable cause and provide judicial oversight before tracking us for extended periods of time using GPS devices. If it were up to the Massachusetts SJC, the NSA would be barred from doing lots of what we have just confirmed it has been doing for years.

Rousseau stems from the 2007 convictions of two Massachusetts men, John Rousseau and Michael Dreslinski, on counts of arson and other crimes. State police officers had used information gleaned from a GPS tracking device placed on Dreslinski’s car as evidence that helped convict both men.

Both men appealed the convictions, arguing, the court writes, “that the warrant which authorized the State police to attach the GPS device to Dreslinski’s car for 31 days was not supported by probable cause and therefore violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.”

In response, the government argued Rousseau had no right to challenge the constitutionality of the GPS tracking that helped convict him, because he was neither the driver nor the owner of the car the police were tracking.

That doesn’t make sense. Thankfully, the SJC doesn’t think so, either:

Rousseau, as a passenger in the vehicle, also has standing because he had a reasonable expectation that his movements would not be subjected to extended electronic surveillance by the government through use of GPS monitoring.

That’s great news. But it gets even better.

Furthermore, the court ruled, “under art. 14, a person may reasonably expect not to be subjected to extended GPS electronic surveillance by the government, targeted at his movements, without judicial oversight and a showing of probable cause.” (Article 14 is essentially the Massachusetts version of the Fourth Amendment; you can read it here.)

Remember three key phrases from that sentence: “extended GPS surveillance,” “judicial oversight,” and “probable cause.” The court ruled that, under the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, if the government wants to watch our movements for an extended period of time (which at the very least is 31 days), then it needs to go to a Judge and prove that it is has probable cause to do so.

As ACLU of Massachusetts’ Legal Director, Matthew Segal, who co-wrote an amicus brief in Rousseau, says:

Today’s ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court is a huge victory for anyone who does not want the government to track their movements. Relying on the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, the court held that the police generally cannot track someone using GPS surveillance unless they secure “judicial oversight” and make “a showing of probable cause.” Although the case itself concerned a passenger in a truck he did not own, the SJC’s ruling was not at all limited to that circumstance. Instead, the SJC made clear that its ruling applies to essentially everyone in Massachusetts.

Not only does the ruling apply to everyone in Massachusetts. The requirement to obtain “judicial oversight” and a “showing of probable cause” before the government can use GPS surveillance to track us for an extended period of time arguably extends well beyond the placement of a GPS tracking device onto a vehicle.

As an ACLU study showed, law enforcement nationwide regularly subpoena detailed information about our travel patterns from our cell phone companies. Our cell phones, too, use GPS to track us. As the ACLU writes, “While virtually all of the roughly 250 police departments that responded to our request said they track cell phones, only a tiny minority reported consistently obtaining a warrant and demonstrating probable cause to do so.”

And that location tracking, sometimes using precise GPS coordinates communicated by our cell phones, is extensive – even apart from the automated-datamart vacuum operations at NSA we are discussing this week. The ACLU reports: “According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Sprint keeps location tracking records for 18-24 months, and AT&T holds onto them “since July 2008,” suggesting they are stored indefinitely.”

Two years and indefinitely are certainly longer than the 31 days the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found was “extended” in the Rousseau case.

But that’s not all.

Automatic license plate readers are increasingly compiling detailed records of everywhere motorists drive. Law enforcement at every level and even private corporations are hoarding this information in regional and even national databases. As the plate readers become cheaper and eventually ubiquitous, hanging from every intersection and attached to every police car, it’s a very real possibility that police will be able to track our every motoring move, going back months, years or even decades. In such cases, officers don’t even need to subpoena anyone for records, because they already have them.

That’s also the case with cell phone sniffing gear like the Stingray, which allows law enforcement to independently track our devices, cutting out the telecoms entirely.

As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a concurring opinion in the landmark Fourth Amendment case US v Jones,

GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations. The Government can store such records and efficiently mine them for information years into the future. And because GPS monitoring is cheap in comparison to conventional surveillance techniques and, by design, proceeds surreptitiously, it evades the ordinary checks that constrain abusive law enforcement practices: “limited police resources and community hostility.”

Sotomayor’s concerns pertain equally to location tracking by way of mobile phone, physical GPS device, and stored automatic license plate reader data.

Citing Jones, the Rousseau decision in Massachusetts makes clear that law enforcement in this state cannot use GPS to track us for an “extended” period of time unless they show probable cause to a judge. That ruling applies to GPS tracking in cell phones. It arguably also applies to detailed license plate reader databases, some of which already contain hundreds of millions of records showing where we drive, and when. These databases are only set to grow, and the vast majority of states have set no limits on how long police departments are allowed to store our location information.

Right now you may be thinking: ‘Who cares about whether or not the SJC said the cops need probable cause to spy on me like this? The NSA is already doing it!’ This is obviously a serious concern and we need to stop it. But the Rousseau decision still matters for people in Massachusetts, in a very big way.

That’s because, even if the Boston or Massachusetts State Police got access to NSA records showing where you went or for how long, they most likely wouldn’t be able to use that evidence against you in a Massachusetts court. Furthermore, the NSA probably isn’t in the business of sharing its preciously hoarded information with state and local police officers, except in highly extraordinary circumstances.

Even more importantly, many of us live in communities wherein we know people who work at the local prosecutors’ office, or are police officers. Local law enforcement is much more integrated into our lives than is the secretive, shadowy NSA. Therefore suspicionless, unaccountable surveillance at the local level poses unique threats to the sanctity of our lives, our dignity as private persons, and even our physical safety.

At the federal level, we need to repeal the FISA Amendments Act so that the military cannot routinely collect and store our private communications, associations and habits. But state law is incredibly important, as well.

That’s why we here in Massachusetts are working to pass legislation to deal with both warrantless cell phone tracking and unregulated license plate tracking, which we hope will become law sooner rather than later. (Join us and add your voice.)

Legislatures have a way of moving very slowly, however, and so in the meantime it’s heartening to see that our state’s highest court agrees on a basic principle, the violation of which underlies the entire NSA and PRISM scandal: if the police want to track our movements over an “extended” period of time, they need to have individualized suspicion and probable cause, and show that evidence to a judge.

It sounds almost quaint this week, but that’s how we do in Massachusetts.


May 24 2013

Massachusetts License Plate Privacy Act Hopes to Keep Police Abuses At Bay

Dr. Q

By Russell Matson

Note: This article is a guest submission. If you’d like to submit a piece of writing to be featured on the site, please use the Contact page or send a message via Facebook or Twitter.

License plate readerHow much power should police have to look up your driving habits and the places you frequent? That’s the question at issue as the state considers limitations on new technology already being widely deployed by police.

The dangers of law enforcement omnipotence and the privacy concerns of a surveillance state have been well documented in light of an increasing and disturbing trend nationwide: license plate readers. Boston-area police have joined the trend, incorporating a number of license plate readers throughout the area enabling police to track motorists, with or without any suspicion of criminal activity.

The tracking powers are almost universal. The way it works is, anywhere your vehicle goes, if it happens to cross one of these readers, it will be photographed and stored into an information system that includes the plate, the location and the time. These readers can be anywhere: the supermarket, your church, your kid’s tennis classes, or community meetings.

The purported primary purpose of these devices is to quickly identify stolen vehicles, or drivers wanted by law enforcement for offenses such as driving on a suspended license, or open warrants for failure to appear in court. Still, all the data, the “misses” as well as the “hits” are constantly being logged.

Once in the system, officials, equipped only with a license plate number, can enter that number into a database that retroactively creates a map of where you’ve been, when you’ve been there, and who else has been there with you.

What’s worse, the emergence of plate reading technology means that law enforcement agencies won’t be the only ones with access to your whereabouts. Private corporations, who have been notorious for using private information on consumers to narrowly tailor their marketing, will line up in droves to get their hands on reader technology. Without legislation in place to prevent this information from getting into the wrong hands, the privacy of Massachusetts citizens and Americans nationwide will continue to dwindle.

Fortunately, such legislation may be on the horizon. The Mass legislature is hearing The License Plate Privacy Act. The bill would set strict parameters around which law enforcement may use any information obtained from license plate readers. Essentially, it would require that any information obtained for reasons other than to track violations should be discarded. A court order would be required for officials to hold onto any such license plate information for more than a few day period.

The bill has already garnered some prominent supporters. The ACLU of Massachusetts has endorsed the bill, with Technology for Liberty Project director Kade Crockford calling the measures “checks and balances” against abusive use of technology. Civil libertarians across the state have praised the bill as not only limiting potentially insidious use, but also of setting precisely the type of guidelines that can make plate readers actually useful to law enforcement, by promoting public safety and lawful upkeep of vehicles.

The implications of the bill would reach even further. As it stands, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security has indicated that a statewide database is the end destination of data obtained from license plate readers. Other states have similar databases, and that the aggregated data funnels through to central information on a national level. That means your movements, in and out of the state, are part of an integrated information tracking system that passes in front of many sets of eyes. Some ALPR devices are even provided to local police departments via grants from the Department of Homeland Security on the condition that they share all their data with national law enforcement.

The bill, if passed, looks to essentially dump any information that is not immediately used to spot infractions. Does that mean snapshots of license plates obtained through routine tracking wouldn’t make their way into nationwide information aggregates? That’s a question for another day. For now, advocates of privacy can agree on one thing: passing the License Plate Privacy Act would be a definite step forward.

Russell Matson is a criminal defense attorney in Massachusetts. His website is http://www.madrunkdrivingdefense.com


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.