STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 8, 2016…..A House chairman is open to a civil liberties group’s proposal to put a check on the acquisition of military equipment, such as armored vehicles and grenade launchers, by local police.
“I think there are some departments where, why give a huge piece of equipment to a small police department that’s going to sit in a garage for the majority of its lifetime as opposed to maybe say, putting it out on a regional basis?” Rep. Hank Naughton, the House chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, said after a hearing on Tuesday. In Massachusetts police SWAT teams often operate on a regional basis.
The Campaign for Digital Fourth Amendment Rights asked lawmakers to advance a bill (H 2169) that would require approval by elected officials before local police or fire departments accept military-grade equipment.
“Our concern about this is the incentives are kind of messed up in the system,” said Alex Matthews, president of the digital privacy group, who said the federal government offers the equipment to police departments for free and without local oversight.
The bill would require authorization by the mayor and city council in a city and the governing body of a town before the police could obtain drones, silencers, or ultrasonic crowd dispersal devices.
Belmont resident Karen Bauerle, who said she learned about the hearing through a Facebook post, told the committee she was shocked to see the armored vehicles and other equipment involved in the response to the Boston Marathon bombers three years ago. Bauerle said the armor she saw then was “out of almost a science fiction movie.”
“I didn’t know about that and that’s, that’s terrifying. It can be used against citizens,” Bauerle told the committee.
Images of armored police facing off against protesters in Ferguson, Mo., have resonated in the national debate over police shootings of black people.
Naughton, a Clinton Democrat, told the News Service he has discussed “the militarization of the American police” with a local police chief and he is interested in the bill.
“I think it’s worthy of discussion,” Naughton said. Naughton said the committee had not yet received testimony against the proposal.
The legislation was filed by Somerville Democrat Rep. Denise Provost, and Matthews said it was filed for the first time this session. Matthews counted about $12 million in military equipment currently held in Massachusetts.
Matthews highlighted the acquisition and use of stingrays – which the American Civil Liberties Union defines as devices that mimic cell towers, secretly obtaining the location and identifying information from phones – as an area in need of oversight by elected officials.
“There has been a great deal of secrecy regarding law enforcement use of stingrays and drones across the country and on the whole these things are best brought into the light and publicly and democratically discussed,” Matthews said. He said Massachusetts has no state law regulating the use of stingrays.