Alameda County supervisors vote to to scale back, shift focus of Urban Shield
on February 28, 2019
After more than five hours of public comment and heated debate, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday to approve nearly all of an ad hoc committee’s recommendations to demilitarize the county’s controversial Urban Shield annual training program. They voted 4-0 to eliminate SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) deployment exercises and the event’s weaponry and military gadget show, shifting the focus of the training event to natural disaster preparedness.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office launched the annual Urban Shield training in 2007, shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in an attempt to make sure law enforcement agencies would be better prepared for future terrorist strikes, as well as other disasters and emergencies. It is funded by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security known as the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI). Thousands of law enforcement officials, civilians and first responders from all over the world have participated in the week-long training exercise, which includes simulations of emergency scenarios ranging from active shooters to hurricanes.
But the training has long been controversial for teaching law
enforcement agents aggressive military tactics rather than de-escalation. Activists
consider the training to be a highly-militarized weapons expo that leads to police
violence against people in communities of color.
“The committee’s recommendations ultimately reflect what community members, disaster survivors and preparedness experts have voiced for years: that effective disaster preparedness is community-based and centered on de-escalation rather than militarization,” said John Lindsay Poland, a member of the committee, explaining why he believes the training needs to change.
But many first responders and law enforcement officers feel that any changes to Urban Shield would be a loss, diminishing their ability to be prepared for a wide range of emergency scenarios. Hayward Police Captain Will Depledge spoke in favor of the focus on terrorism. “It would be irresponsible to not plan and prepare for when that day comes,” he said.
The board created the Alameda County Ad Hoc Committee on UASI and emergency preparedness in March, mandating they work with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to create a new and improved iteration of Urban Shield that community activists and law enforcement officers could agree on. Each supervisor appointed one member to the five-person committee, which includes a peace activist and an executive director of a nonprofit focused emergency response.
At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, in front of a packed room, the group presented their findings, which they said were a culmination of months of research, a dozen meetings, and input from a vast swath of people, including the public, law enforcement officials and experts on community-based preparedness. They proposed a “whole community approach” between members of the public, first responders and political leaders working together to understand the needs of their communities.
“Every person should be ready for emergencies and disasters,” said committee chair Erin Armstrong, emphasizing the need to train civilians as well as law enforcement agents on how to stay safe in the case of disasters ranging from earthquakes to active shooters. “We want to promote a culture of readiness.”
The committee proposed an end to SWAT exercises. SWAT is a law enforcement unit that uses specialized military equipment and tactics, which opponents say encourages the militarization of the police, and teaches unnecessarily harsh escalation tactics that lead to violence.
The committee also recommended a re-allocation of the $4.9 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security—which currently funds Urban Shield—to instead focus on public health and social service agencies dedicated to natural disaster-preparedness and community resiliency. The goal would be to train community members to be able to respond quickly and helpfully in emergency situations, rather than relying solely on paramedics or the police.
At the meeting, many of the gathered crowd held signs that read, “I am a first responder in my community,” drawing attention to the fact that the first person on the scene in any disaster or emergency is usually a civilian.
District 4 Supervisor Nate Miley, who represents Oakland, expressed concerns that some of these recommendations “might be counter to public safety,” and wondered whether approving any of the recommendations could cause the sheriff to lose the Homeland Security grant that currently funds Urban Shield.
Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern said he was concerned about this as well. “Still, there are a number of recommendations they’ve put forth that will not conflict with the law, or grant rules, that we are happy to accommodate,” Ahern said. He said he was open to dialogue about the areas he had concerns about, but didn’t specify which recommendations he agreed with or didn’t.
District 3 Supervisor Wilma Chan, who also represents Oakland, then pointed out there were 21 topics on which there was unanimous agreement by all the committee members, and added that they had spent a huge amount of time considering these issues. “So there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to take action today,” she said, urging the board to adopt the 21 recommendations that had unanimous agreement.
During the public comment section, dozens of speakers expressed their desire to keep Urban Shield as it was, while many others expressed their support for the committee’s proposed changes.
Rebecca Knight, a technician with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office who participated in Urban Shield, said she had been in the audience at the Harvest music festival in Las Vegas on the night an 68-year-old man from Nevada opened fire on the crowd, killing 58 people and wounding 400 more. “I was enjoying music with friends in Las Vegas—until it became an active shooter situation. Urban Shield saved my life,” she said, explaining that if she hadn’t known to wait for the shooter to reload before she ran, how to check where the exits were, or how to stay calm, she doesn’t know if she would have been able to lead herself and her friends to safety. “I feel that if Urban Shield was able to save my life and four others, then it should be allowed to exist,” she continued.
But many of the speakers who spoke in support of the proposed changes felt that Urban Shield ultimately did more to increase violence than stop it. An Oakland resident named Dylan, who gave only his first name when he stood to speak, alleged that he had suffered injuries at the hands of a police officer who had attended four different Urban Shield trainings—and that this had happened at a protestfocused on stopping Urban Shield. “That was a year and a half ago, and I’m still recovering from those injuries,” he said. “The officer escalated the situation to a place where it didn’t need to go.”
He said he was hopeful that the supervisors would approve the recommendations.
At the end of a long public comment section, the
commissioners voted to approve most of the recommendations set forth by the
committee, including the one to eliminate SWAT training. But the board did not approve the proposal to re-allocate $5
million to disaster preparedness. After the vote, Chan said she would rather
review the proposal later as part of the county’s whole budget.
In a written statement, Ana-Marie Jones, one of the committee members, described the moment as triumphant, calling the changes “an exceptional opportunity to embrace emergency readiness and resilience to the benefit of all—including people who are most at risk in disasters, as well as our most trained emergency responders.”
“We will emerge stronger and more united in our quest for community-based readiness and resilience,” she said.
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