California Cities Debate Militarization of Local Police Departments

This is the BearCat MedeVac that the San Leandro Police Department decided to purchase. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

Military-grade equipment usually comes to local police from two main sources -- for free from the Pentagon, after being used in Iraq or Afghanistan -- or purchased with assistance from Homeland Security grants. The trend began during the 1990s and escalated after 9/11. But today, especially after the events in Ferguson, Missouri, more questions are being asked about whether this is the right direction for a local police department to follow.

San Leandro is a city that has taken one approach.

In early January, in the parking lot of a senior center in San Leandro, a black armored vehicle was surrounded by TV cameras and curious locals.  The doors were flung wide open, and Sgt. Nick Corti was eagerly showing onlookers around.

“It’s pretty much an ambulance with a hard shell on the outside,” Corti explained, pointing out the ambulance bay, two gurneys, medical equipment and oxygen tanks.

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Corti said it’s officially called a BearCat MedEvac, but several dozen protesters were chanting "Send the tank back" and holding signs that said: “San Leandro is Ferguson” and "No military police.”

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Protesters outside San Leandro's senior center decry acquisition of a BearCat MedeVac armored vehicle. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

The crowd soon moved inside for a special City Council meeting about whether to spend $200,000 to acquire the vehicle. Kimberly Peterson, of the nearby Fremont Police Department, said the BearCat could be used throughout the East Bay in emergency situations.

"If you want the ability to get people in there safely, meaning your first responders, whether it's police, fire, EMS or all three at once, then you need something like this," Peterson said.

“You need access to it right now, you need access to it immediately. You can't just stand there and let people bleed to death,” she continued.

“This is no ambulance. This is an armored vehicle. Why are there gun ports?” asked Richard Brennan, one of dozens of citizens who took to the mic to oppose the purchase.

“Seeing that vehicle outside, it didn’t make me feel safe," San Leandro high school student Coco Jones told the San Leandro police and City Council. "It made me feel like, 'Why do I feel like I’m being put in a war zone?' ”

San Leandro police Lt. Randy Brandt said the department was “very concerned about the militarization and all the comments that have come up … last thing we want to do is draw a divide between us and the community.”

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San Leandro Lt. Randy Brandt tells the public why the department wants to purchase a BearCat MedeVac armored vehicle. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

But in the end, San Leandro decided to use a Homeland Security grant and make the purchase.

Other California law enforcement agencies, however, resolved to change course.

The Los Angeles Unified School District's police returned three grenade launchers to the Department of Defense. The cities of San Jose and Davis each returned a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, known as an MRAP.

“Is this really what it takes to create a secure community?” asked Davis City Councilman Robb Davis, who voted to return the MRAP.

"Do you bring that symbol into a small town, into a community, and just say it has no other symbolic value, it's just a tool? ... I think there are things that are available to us for creating security that are available, but it's not wise to use them,” Davis added.

The actions taken in L.A., Davis and San Jose are part of the backlash to what’s being called the "militarization” of local police. It’s seen by some as the opposite of community policing -- they say it distances local police from the citizens they serve.

Plus, the ACLU found that most SWAT team raids across the country are related to drugs -- not active shooters, hostages or barricades -- and that the heavily armed operations also disproportionately affect low-income people of color.

"Ferguson has really sort of taken the wool over all of our eyes and really opened our eyes to just how widespread this phenomenon was,” said Will Matthews with the ACLU of Northern California.

"Because a lot of the funding for this stuff is coming from the federal government, direct from federal grants from the Department of Homeland Security and other places," Matthews added. "It's allowing local law enforcement to sort of circumvent typical oversight mechanisms."

A push to reform the Pentagon’s free weapons program is stalled  in Washington. But in the California Assembly, Nora Campos (D-San Jose) is pushing legislation that would force local governing agencies to follow a public process when they decide to acquire surplus military equipment.

“The people that live in that community have the right to know what you are bringing into their neighborhoods and what it's going to look like,” Campos said.

But transparency is only part of the issue. Even if individual towns decide to buck the trend, it won't be easy to change law enforcement as a whole.  When the Davis police decided to get rid of their armored vehicle, the feds quickly found another taker -- the town of Woodland, only 10 miles away.

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