Outside the gates of the Alameda County Fairgrounds, protestors formed a human chain to stop participants from entering what they called “the war games.” Inside, local and national first responders gathered at the 10th annual Urban Shield training to prepare for a weekend of exercises and check out this year’s latest offerings at the weapons and equipment expo.
This past weekend, the Oakland Police Department (OPD) joined dozens of other law enforcement agencies in training scenarios across the Bay Area to improve emergency response and learn how to use the latest technologies. Teams of eight practiced dealing with mock disaster scenarios such as an assault on an Amtrak train in West Oakland, a bombing at the Oakland Airport, and a massive city-wide earthquake.
“We have to train our first responders because if we don’t, there’s nobody to deal with an active shooter,” said Sgt. Raymond Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, in an interview. “It’s where the rubber meets the road.”
This year’s event, however, came at a particularly controversial time when police departments across the nation are under scrutiny for use of excessive force, particularly against communities of color.
STOP Urban Shield, a coalition of social justice organizations, said they organized the protest because they felt that the training and weapons expo promotes “the militarization of the police,” according to Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, a member of the coalition.
“What we need is less policing and more focus on the health and well-being of our communities,” said Kiswani. “We don’t see Urban Shield as anything other than a way to perpetuate warmongering, a way to perpetuate policing, to perpetuate militarism and to literally make war on our communities both here and globally.”
After massive protests by the group in 2014, Urban Shield was moved from Oakland to the fairgrounds in Pleasanton. The coalition considered this a huge win, arguing that the city was no place for the training given the history of police violence.
STOP Urban Shield now wants the training stopped altogether.
Urban Shield is funded by a grant from the Department of Homeland under the Urban Areas Security Initiative. For the fiscal 2016 year, the department distributed $580 million in grants to train law enforcement departments in 29 areas across the U.S. that are considered a high threat for terrorism.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spends nearly $2 million annually to host the annual event, according to a grant summary for the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative program. To comply with the grant, every training scenario incorporates some aspect of responding to terrorism.
This raises a red flag for groups like Kiswani’s. “If their job is to take care of communities, if their job is to maintain and sustain the well-being and health of our communities, then their job is not to further militarize and treat our communities like enemy combatants,” Kiswani said.
During this year’s tactical trainings, police teams were introduced to the latest upgrades in weaponry, medical response kits, and preparation equipment, including a giant touch screen for briefing rooms. Before each team was sent out to complete a scenario they were briefed on their mission objectives, given a pellet gun and suited up in protective gear.
At the fairgrounds, dozens of vendors represented a wide spectrum of the technology that first responders in all levels of emergency response might use, such as protective armor, a flame-resistant hazmat suit, assault rifles, nuclear radiation detectors, a miniature thermoscope and a 360-degree camera ball. One of the items that generated the biggest buzz was WhiteFox, a drone interceptor that can reroute a drone by hijacking its remote system.
Kiswani said she was dismayed by last year’s Urban Shield event when she saw a clothing vendor selling a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Black Rifles Matter” featuring a picture of two M16s. “That mentality is both mocking our movements and our communities, but also essentially saying that our communities should be repressed, controlled and killed off,” she said.
Officers, however, argued that the training helps them perform their duties more safely.
In one exercise on Saturday afternoon, OPD officers were assigned a mock mission to subdue terrorists, rescue their hostages and medically treat a downed officer in an abandoned two-story building. Four officers ran up a flight of stairs, then stormed through an unmarked door, which opened to a main room. As observers watched from behind Plexiglas walls, they performed the action in less than two minutes in a quick barrage of fire. Then the men returned to the debriefing room to review what they did right and what they could improve upon.
“This makes us better at our job and we have to be good at our craft,” Sgt. Kelly said. “We aren’t killers; we are saving lives.”
The sergeant added that there has been a greater push to teach de-escalation techniques in light of the recent incidents of police use of violence. “We’re putting a heavy emphasis on shoot and don’t shoot scenarios, using technology, less-lethal weapons and police dogs to safely resolve situations,” he said.