Trump’s military surplus transfer to local police fuels Berkeley police militarization debate

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Yukun Zhang/File

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that President Trump will issue an executive order to make it easier for local police departments to obtain military surplus equipment such as armored cars and grenade launchers, sparking controversy in the city of Berkeley.

The proposal has raised concerns regarding the militarization of police — an especially contentious issue in Berkeley because of the city’s continued participation in Urban Shield, a police training program. This June, two protesters were arrested at a heated City Council meeting after rushing the stage when the council voted to continue the program.

Urban Shield is a regional preparedness exercise meant to assess the Bay Area’s response capabilities to “critical event(s)” by providing equipment and training.

“We have laws against deploying the military on our own soil,” said Councilmember Sophie Hahn, “so turning our police forces, which are supposed to be community policing, into a de facto military with grenade launchers is … not just a bad idea. … It’s a dangerous idea.”

Hahn added that she thinks Berkeley will not be applying to receive military surplus equipment because Berkeley Police Department’s focus is on community policing.

“I don’t think anyone in Berkeley thinks they need a grenade launcher,” Hahn said. “That is truly unthinkable here.”

Councilmember Ben Bartlett credits some of the concern over Urban Shield to a “creeping … militarism with (police) protocols.”

According to Bartlett, Urban Shield’s training is focused on simulating warlike conditions and “kill-or-be-killed and quick-draw activity.”

In an Aug. 29 report, Bartlett stated that he assembled a panel to review Urban Shield practices, reaching the conclusion that BPD should not participate in the program any longer.

“There was unanimous agreement among the panelists that Urban Shield had a myriad of problematic elements including hyper-militarization and curriculum evidencing racial/ethnic animus,” the report stated.

Representatives from Urban Shield could not be reached for comment.

“The local government is worried because we don’t want to encourage anti-human practices among our peace offices, but we also want to be prepared for emergencies,” Bartlett said.

George Lippman, chair of the Police Review Commission, or PRC, said Urban Shield and the threat of militarization is a continuous conversation for the commission. PRC is a commission that is responsible for processing and reviewing civilian complaints and offering policy advice to City Council.

Although complaints have generally been low over the past few years, with annual complaints ranging from 15 to 27, Lippman admitted that this is not an indicator of the people’s overall satisfaction with police performance.

“It sets a very bad tone when militaristic training, equipment and tactics become standardized,” Lippman said. “I am nervous about the effect of activities such as Urban Shield for those reasons. They send the wrong message.”

According to Nicholas Adams, principal investigator of the Deciding Force project — research focused on uncovering the dynamics of police and protesters — when police show up to peaceful protests with military gear, it signals to the crowd that the police are ready to fight.

“Most police departments never want to send such provocative, trust-destroying signals to their communities,” Adams said in an email. “(A) program distributing weapons of war to police is probably useless, at best, unless police departments are needed to help fend off an invasion by some foreign military power.”

BPD spokesperson Officer Jennifer Coats said in an email that she was not aware of Trump’s plan and its relationship to BPD, but she reiterated that the department will still be participating in this year’s Urban Shield training.

Kate Tinney is the lead crime and courts reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @K_Tinney.