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Alameda County Sheriff's Office SWAT Team participates in a training exercise during Urban Shield 2013. Photo by Jake Nicol.

Urban Shield trains first responders, draws fire over weapons show

on October 30, 2013

Eight uniformed men sprinted across a West Oakland rail yard, watching each other’s backs. Moving like a heavily-armed amoeba, they surrounded the front of an Amtrak passenger train, exchanging gunfire with terrorists on board. Bullets whizzed past as the team leader ran toward the train car, shooting and killing the terrorist. He signaled with little more than a hand gesture and the camouflaged S.W.A.T. team boarded the train, reloading their weapons, determined to free the frightened hostages on-board.

The hostages, however, were actors. As were the terrorists. The bullets? Rubber. The weapons? Airsoft replicas.

This scene, played out last weekend, was one of more than 50 training maneuvers, that took place during the law enforcement exercises of Urban Shield, the controversial vendor show and conference in Oakland that ended Monday.

“Urban Shield is the largest full-scale exercise in the nation,” said Sgt. J.D. Nelson, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) public information officer. The event was created by ACSO seven years ago and has grown each year. This year, Nelson estimates that more than 5,000 people participated from across the state, country and world.

Inside the vendor show, manufacturers of drones, surveillance equipment, weapons and armored vehicles displayed their wares to attendees. Although the organizers of Urban Shield bill it as an event focused on medical and rescue first response, the vendor show featured so much military hardware that it drew criticism from activists.

After Friday’s trade show, close to 100 protestors rallied outside of the Oakland Marriot Hotel. The activist group Facing Urban Shield Action Network, a group of 30 Bay Area organizations that oppose police brutality and promote policing alternatives, organized the protest, which was largely attended by Occupy Oakland. The event coincided with the second anniversary of the removal of the Occupy Oakland encampment by OPD.

“If it’s truly about first responders and disaster preparedness, then why are all these weapons manufacturers here?” said Lynn Gottlieb, Berkeley-based co-organizer of the protest and Cofounder of Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence. “Shouldn’t we be calling something ‘urban shield’ which works on prevention?”

Among the protestors was Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen, whose skull was fractured when an Oakland Police officer shot him in the head with a bean bag round during an Occupy Oakland protest exactly two years ago.

“We’re seeing continued training in scenarios that paint the public as an enemy,” said Olsen, who did two tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps. “The police forces right in this building are buying the same weapons that they used to shoot me.”

Cephus Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant, the unarmed 22-year-old who was shot and killed by BART police in 2009 while facedown in the Fruitvale BART station, was also outspoken at the protest, referring to Urban Shield in a speech as “war games within our city.”

Urban Shield is funded largely by the Department of Homeland Security, which contributed $1.5 million to the Oakland event, according  to James Baker, president of Cytel Group Inc., a Pleasanton, CA-based firm that evaluates security preparedness and helps organize Urban Shield events around the country.

The Bay Area Urban Area Securities Initiative, a Department of Homeland Security program allocated “$1,537,500 for materials, equipment, supplies, local transportation, and overtime personnel costs to support the over 200 first responder agencies that take part in this life saving training,” Francis Zamora, public information officer of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, wrote in an email.

“The skills and lessons learned at Urban Shield go beyond the Bay Area.  Urban Shield was credited by Boston first responders as essential to their response to the Boston Marathon Bombing,” Zamora continued.

The Oakland event was coordinated by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. S.W.A.T. teams came from as far as Israel and Brazil to participate and compete in the event’s exercises.

When asked about the concerns of the protest groups charging police militarization, Sgt. Nelson said he could understand them to an extent, but he stressed that that these technologies are central to keeping officers safe in today’s society.

“I think that if people weren’t going into Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing teachers and children, if people weren’t going into Oikos University and killing seven people… we would go back to taking cats out of trees and walking old ladies across the street,” said Sgt. Nelson. “But the reality is that this is what we’re presented with, and this is what we have to prepare for.”

Activists argued that the arms dealers at the show were selling products more related to military weaponry than violence prevention. One of the show’s many vendors was ATK, or Alliant Techsystems, headquartered in Arlington, VA.  One of the nation’s leading munitions manufacturers, ATK reported to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it sold $4.4 billion of products to the U. S. and foreign governments in fiscal year 2013 including advanced missile systems, warheads and military aircraft. The Department of Defense did not respond to requests for comment.

“We see events like Urban Shield as one of the main engines of militarization of the police and everyday life,” said Ali Issa, field organizer with the War Resisters League, a New York-based pacifist group.

As U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down in the last decade, arms dealers have found new markets within U.S. borders, Issa said in a phone interview. According to the War Resistor’s League website, these corporations are actively trying to put more advanced weapons in the grip of American police and federal agencies.

Despite a charge by many activists that the event wasn’t geared toward first response, some of Saturday’s program did have an emergency medical focus. On the now decommissioned Bay Bridge, a complicated rescue drill took place involving Hazmat teams, high-angle rescue, and search and rescue.

First responders rappelled off the bridge and lowered a dummy to a rescue boat below, while experts observed and judged each team’s performance. On the lower deck of the bridge, firefighters participated in a drill involving a possible radioactive contamination, and were trained in the use of a Geiger counter.

Participants at the scene spoke to the importance of coordinated efforts in case of catastrophe. One fireman and high-angle rope rescue expert who asked not to be named, said that after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, certain Bay Area fire crews had different fittings on their hoses, and couldn’t effectively work together. He said that events like Urban Shield allow everyone to be on the “same page.”


  1. harvey on November 8, 2013 at 11:30 am

    4.4 Billion? Advanced missile systems?, military aircraft?
    I smell pork. Do we have adequate controls over local law enforcement?

    • Piper on November 9, 2013 at 1:19 pm

      Yep, $4.4 billion spent to militarize local law enforcement while at the same time slashing $40 billion from the food security program SNAP (food stamps). It’s like they’re trying to create a discontent civilian population to test their new hardware on, don’t you think? And we don’t have adequate controls over local law enforcement. Less than 25 people went to the public hearing in February to protest the sheriff’s request to launch surveillance drones into our skies, and in April a sheriff’s deputy ran over and killed a pedestrian but was never jailed or charged criminally or civilly, never lost a day of pay and never had his driver’s license suspended by the DMV. The victim’s family couldn’t even afford to ship his body home for burial. No justice, no fairness, no safety, and no compassion. Add those ethics to today’s socio-economic realities, toss in some para-military hardware like tanks and drones, and Alameda County becomes a poster child for the increasingly likely full-force police state. It’s damned scary but sadly true.

  2. Chris on November 8, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    They also put up big waterfilled barricades along 10th street and part of Washington. It was the kind of arrogance and lack of consideration for the neighborhood I’ve come to expect from the Sheriffs every year they host this at the Marriott.

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