UCPD acquired more than a dozen M16 rifles in 2006 as part of an ongoing military surplus program, according to data recently released by the Pentagon.
The program, titled 1033, allows for federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to obtain excess property from the U.S. Department of Defense deemed overstock and that would otherwise be destroyed. UCPD is among more than 13,000 law enforcement agencies participating in the requisition service, which distributes items from mundane office supplies to mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles typically deployed in conflict zones.
The data released by the Pentagon, accessible through a state website, show that of the four California college campus police departments in possession of 1033-requisitioned assault rifles, UC Berkeley’s police department tops the list with 14, followed by San Joaquin Delta College, which has four assault rifles.
The rifles obtained by UCPD were ordered in 1996 as part of an effort to equip its SWAT-like unit, known as the Negotiation and Entry Team, with a higher-caliber weapon to use against sophisticated body armor, according to UCPD spokesperson Lt. Eric Tejada.
“The 9mm won’t defeat the body armor, which is why we went with (a larger caliber weapon),” Tejada said. “It wasn’t something that every officer was using. It was very specific, for highly trained group of officers.”
Participating agencies are only required to cover shipping and transportation costs and are not charged for the equipment.
According to the Defense Logistics Agency, the group that administers the program, the service has since dispersed more than $5.1 billion in surplus items to participating agencies since the program became available to law enforcement in fiscal-year 1997.
In 2013, an estimated $4.5 million in Pentagon property was transferred to local law enforcement. Qualified agencies must justify their need to state administrators and are required to keep an annual inventory.
According to Tejada, two major incidents influenced UCPD’s decision to assemble the negotiation team after concerns that the department lacked the resources to deal with a “barricaded threat” or similar situations.
In the first incident, Berkeley Police Department killed a gunman who was holding 33 hostages for seven hours inside a Southside bar in September 1990. Two years later, an Oakland police officer killed Rosebud Denovo after she broke into the home of then-chancellor Chang-Lin Tien.
Apart from the 14 assault rifles assigned to certain UCPD personnel, there are no current plans for UCPD to requisition additional items from 1033 program.
“We don’t need any more, so we haven’t been asking for any more,” Tejada said. “But if 1033 has it, you can request it. And if they have it, they can give it to you.”
The decades-old program has recently garnered public scrutiny when photos of law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri were publicized following the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Elliott Currie, Berkeley resident and professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, said the requisitions are likely an opportunistic use of free resources but warned that law enforcement should worry about the type of message they are conveying to the public.
“They have been a little bit heedless in not thinking about the potential consequences of the vision of themselves in the community when they are seen as becoming increasingly militarized,” Currie said.
UCPD carries about $7,000 worth of 1033 equipment in its inventory. Still, it is able to collaborate with other Bay Area 1033 participants under a mutual aid agreement renewed in October.
According to records, these include Alameda County Sheriff’s Office’s $4.4 million “fast-patrol craft,” Concord Police Department’s armored personnel carrier and Albany Police Department’s assault rifles.
Although other East Bay police departments such as Berkeley’s and Oakland’s are absent from 1033 participation, they are still provided grant money through a U.S. Department of Homeland Security initiative, which can then be used to purchase similar military-grade equipment subject to collaborative use under mutual aid.
Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who abstained from voting on mutual aid renewal in October, said he recognized that there may be a legitimate purpose for the use of military-grade equipment in specific cases but would like to better align UCPD’s policies with BPD’s.
“Therein lies the issue,” Arreguin said. “UCPD may be getting all this equipment, and if we call in mutual aid, they may use them on Berkeley citizens.”
Tejada maintains, however, that UCPD will not use its M16s in a crowd-control situation and that they are designated for specific SWAT team use. Most recently, the assault rifles were deployed while following through on a “high-risk” Oakland search warrant last month.
“We are trying very hard to listen to the community,” Tejada said. “We have an asset like an M16 that is specifically used for a very specific purpose — I hope people understand that we are not going to abuse that.”