Berkeley City Council passes ordinance regulating use of militarized equipment

Photo of police crowd control during 2017 protest
Joshua Jordan/File
Berkeley City Council passed an ordinance limiting the use of militarized equipment. Police are now also required to disclose whenever these weapons are used or deployed.

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Berkeley City Council unanimously passed an ordinance April 27 limiting the use of militarized equipment, which can be utilized for the purpose of crowd control.

The legislation will set parameters for when equipment of a military nature can be used, according to Councilmember Kate Harrison. The measure would also require police to report whenever these weapons are used or deployed.

“Right now we don’t have information or data on the use of these weapons,” Harrison said at the meeting. “The ordinance, in a nutshell, is that we set the general use parameters and we get an annual report on how the equipment was used and in what neighborhoods.”

Referred to as “controlled equipment” in the ordinance, the rules would apply to a variety of equipment including assault rifles, long batons more than 30 inches and long-range acoustic devices, which are high pitch sound machines that emit noises that can potentially damage one’s hearing, according to Harrison.

Police Review Commission commissioner Ismail Ramsey said these weapons can be deployed depending on the equipment in use and the situation. This includes scenarios requiring crowd control. Harrison said some of the crowd control equipment was used during the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd.

“What happened after George Floyd was murdered — we saw the use of some pretty heavy armaments, and people are generally concerned about what police departments are doing,” Harrison said. “Just deploying these weapons and having them out in that setting to command the public is scary.”

While the use of this kind of equipment may seem normal to the police, the public is not as familiar with it because much of the gear comes from the military, Harrison added.

Harrison emphasized that the main point of this ordinance is transparency around when these weapons are used and deployed. Requiring the reporting of use will help the community understand how the equipment is used, while also allowing the City Council and the police department to improve policies, added Ramsey.

“It’s important to make sure there are clear policies that are guiding the use of this militarized equipment, so I hope this ordinance will ensure that happens,” Ramsey said. “Gathering data will also allow us to determine whether this equipment is used equitably across different communities particularly with respect to race.”

This ordinance has been in the making for more than a year, according to Harrison. She noted that looking at what the police are doing more closely is essentially just “good government.”

Harrison added that this is the final piece of legislation out of the many police reforms introduced last spring. Ramsey said this ordinance, building on other legislation such as the Use of Force policy, shows Berkeley to be a leader in police reform.

Contact Vani Suresh at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @vanisuresh_.

Clarification(s):
A previous version of this article may have implied that the ordinance passed Tuesday, May 4. In fact, the ordinance passed Tuesday, April 27.