Updated 2:12 p.m.
Local law enforcement agencies in California now need to have a publicly available policy establishing guidelines for acquisition, funding and reporting any military equipment, thanks to AB481, passed last year — and they must allow the public to provide feedback. That offers a new level of oversight over how that equipment is used to enforce the law.
Since 1990, local law enforcement agencies have reaped the benefits of the U.S. Department of Defense spending due to the Law Enforcement Support program, which awards surplus property to law enforcement agencies. That ranges from items as commonplace as office supplies to what AB481 would term military equipment.
Initially, the program was founded to provide additional support in counter-drug efforts, and expanded in 1997 to award agencies excess federal property as long as it assists their “arrest and apprehension mission.” Preference is given to counter-drug and counter-terrorism-related requests.
That program has allowed the Sacramento Police Department to acquire, among other things, M16 rifles and grenade launchers over the years.
While state coordinators provide oversight for the program, the new law will bring more regulation — and Sacramento community members can have a say in what that looks like in their city. The Sacramento Police Department set up a feedback form for improving its military equipment use policy, which passed during the Dec. 14 City Council meeting. You can fill out the the military equipment use policy feedback form until May 20.
That additional oversight is thanks to AB481, which passed the state Legislature last September as conversations about appropriate crowd management during protests and militarization of police continued.
Departments needed to create that policy and have City Council vote on it before May 1, to continue using anything the bill deems military equipment that was acquired before Jan. 1.
The Sacramento Police Department brought its policy for City Council approval in November of 2021 in order to increase transparency before the beginning of the 2022 calendar year, said Sgt. Zach Eaton. The department will present an updated policy later this year after receiving public feedback, and to add equipment Eaton said was "inadvertently left off" the first version.
“Since it is also an ordinace, it must go before Council to be changed,” he said. “Creating the public feedback option is a new opportunity to provide the community and Council with additional ability to participate in the process.”
Then-Assembly member David Chiu (D-San Francisco), who’s now City Attorney of San Francisco, authored the bill. He said it sprung from a desire to address that militarization without banning the use of military equipment altogether.
“Most observers would say that when the police are outfitted like an invading military force, it strains community trust,” he said. “Our streets in California shouldn’t be war zones, our citizens shouldn’t be treated as enemy combatants.”
The bill requires every local law enforcement agency to create a public written document that addresses:
- The amount, type and capabilities of any military equipment
- The purpose for the equipment request
- The costs associated with maintenance and acquisition of equipment
- The training that must be completed before the equipment can be used
- The legal and procedural rules for using the equipment
The policy must also include information about how members of the public can submit feedback about military equipment use. Per the bill, law enforcement agencies are also mandated to produce an annual report on the equipment used that year and any equipment that they are planning to purchase.
Including mechanisms for transparency was a priority to Chiu when authoring the bill.
“It asks for local law enforcement to have a conversation with local communities so that everybody knows what equipment is being used in a local community,” he said. “The public should have a right to know when and why local law enforcement feel that they need military-caliber equipment, particularly when public dollars are being used to purchase and maintain that equipment.”
Eaton with the Sacramento Police Department clarified that the policy is a request to City Council to continue using current equipment.
The law requires the Sacramento Police Department, and other law enforcement agencies, to create a policy that gets approved by their local governing body to authorize their continued use of all items the bill defines as military equipment.
“These are not new purchases, the law just requires we list model numbers, acquisition costs, on-going maintenance costs and costs to replace used,” he said via email. “We will be coming to Council every year with the report on what we have used each year and what we are purchasing to replace.”
In the current version of this policy, the police department has listed the cost for a ROOK armored vehicle as $400,000. The policy also lists 644 chemical agents, including tear gas and grenades, with procurement costs of over $31,000.
When City Council first voted to authorize the military equipment use policy at its last meeting of 2021, Council member Katie Valenzuela asked to call off the acquisition of the ROOK and the rescinding of authorization to use tear gas.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to purchase a third armored vehicle especially when we have access to the one the sheriff’s office owns,” she said. “Also … there are plenty of tools we have that aren’t this type of chemical warfare agent.”
Councilmembers Sean Loloee and Jeff Harris both expressed vocal support for the department’s continued use of tear gas, especially given last year’s passage of AB48, which prevents the use of tear gas and chemical agents until after de-escalation tactics have been used.
“I am not interested in eroding the toolbox of our PD,” Harris said. “I feel that they use these types of equipment judiciously and wisely and save lives by doing so.”
He referred to the department’s handling of the George Floyd and Stephon Clark protests.
There is currently a lawsuit against the Sacramento Police Department for alleged discriminatory treatment at protests.
Valenzuela and Council member Mai Vang were the only two to vote against adopting the policy as written.
While Eaton said there is no email address the public can send feedback to if they miss the deadline for the feedback form, he said community members can provide meeting at the City Council meeting when the updated policy is to be discussed and voted on.
That meeting will happen in late June or early July, with the date to be determined. To find out when the discussion will take place, you can review the City Council upcoming meeting agendas.
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