At 5:38 a.m. on Valentine’s Day 2014, the SWAT team burst into the Peabody apartment.
Two men inside were suspected of dealing drugs: heroin, marijuana, and cocaine. Police were told one of them might have a gun.
The officers had a no-knock warrant, meaning multiple teams of officers could burst into the apartment unannounced in the early morning hours.
When they got inside, they found their suspect watching television on the couch. Another man was in a bedroom.
Also in the apartment were a mother and her 10-year-old son. All four were taken into custody.
By 7:30 a.m., the mission was wrapped up. The report — written after the fact — doesn’t say what drugs might have been recovered, or why they had to go into the house in the cover of night, or what else might have made this raid high-risk enough to send the special tactical team.
The Peabody report, along with 78 others filed over three years from July 2012 through June 2014, is part of a trove of documents released by the regional policing agency known as the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council. They’re documents the agency initially didn’t want the public to have, before reaching an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
When the ACLU conducted a national survey of SWAT teams, the Massachusetts chapter wasn’t able to participate. None of the Massachusetts units would turn over their information, saying the information wasn’t subject to the state’s public records law. That prompted the lawsuit.
Carlisle Police Chief John Fisher, the current chairman of NEMLEC, says now that refusal wasn’t the “correct posture to take.’’
“We’re happy to provide these documents,’’ he said. “There are no gotchas that exist.’’
Across the country, the ACLU found that SWAT teams executed search warrants in 80 percent of their raids. About 42 percent of NEMLEC’s 79 reports were for warrants; the majority of those were drug related.
“Reading through these documents, reading through the reports about drug raids, largely confirmed my suspicions about how the war on drugs has contributed to the militarization of police in Massachusetts in the same way it’s happened nationwide,’’ said Kade Crockford, director of technology for the liberty project at the ACLU in Massachusetts.
According to the reports, officers found drugs only a handful of times after these raids, Crockford said. That’s 5 out of 21 drug-related searches. Some of the reports indicated drugs or weapons were found. Some give an explanation of the dangerousness of the suspect.
Fisher said those holes are because usually, NEMLEC doesn’t stick around for the sweep of the house. The SWAT teams are only there to keep people safe for the raid, not detail the reason for the warrant or what the aftermath was.
That lack of a complete picture gets at why NEMLEC initially didn’t to release the documents, he said.
“We thought the right place to get the documents was the [local] agency where the incident occurred,’’ Fisher said. “By getting [the records] from NEMLEC, you get a small piece of the story.’’
Other reports detailed incidents involving barricaded suspects or suicidal people, planned crowd control, security events (like the Red Sox World Series win in 2013 and the Dalai Lama’s visit in 2012), or searches for missing people.
Less than a dozen times, they used special devices to drive barricaded subjects out of their homes or surprise suspects: “diversionary’’ devices, chemical gas, a Taser, or “less than lethal’’ bean bag guns.
In fact, many of the documents — especially those involving armed, suicidal suspects — show how these special teams try to keep people alive.
In October 2012, Beverly police officers called NEMLEC after they tried to take a suicidal man into custody. The 6-foot-4, 350 pound man had previously threatened “deadly force’’ against any officers who might come to his apartment.
When the officers opened his door, he greeted them armed with a 9 inch kitchen knife.
The uniformed officers called the SWAT team. A negotiator and 38 others showed up. Six hours later, with the man still refusing to leave, the team entered the apartment. When the man lunged at them with a knife, they shot him with a Taser and took him into custody.
He left the apartment alive.
“That’s really the crux of why a law enforcement council works,’’ Fisher said. “We can have a few specially, highly-trained officers that do this type of work.’’
That’s a success story, Crockford said. It convinced her that there is a place for specialized police teams.
“It’s in the name,’’ she said. “Special Weapons and Tactics. It actually really made sense to deploy in that situation …. These SWAT teams went in and disarmed people without killing them.’’
And that’s why, Crockford said, the ACLU and others want to see more police transparency.
“Reading all the information, getting a sense of the big picture gives us the information we need to make informed, sound policy,’’ she said.
The hope is that more agencies will drop the shield and release more of these documents on a regular basis, she said — this time, without a lawsuit.
On July 1, the ACLU made similar requests of eight other regional law enforcement agencies across Massachusetts. They have yet to respond.
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