Police departments that own and use military equipment are now under more scrutiny, following a new state law mandating greater transparency and disclosure of how cops use certain guns, explosive devices and other tools.
The Mountain View City Council voted unanimously Tuesday on a new policy in which the police department must list all of the military equipment it owns and its permitted uses, including close tracking of how much it costs to acquire and maintain, and whether there are any violations by officers using the equipment.
The policy is a direct result of new state legislation, Assembly Bill 481, which requires additional oversight in order for police to continue using military gear. The bill intends to shine a light on the extent to which police departments have picked up what it describes as "military equipment," a broad term that includes a myriad of firearms, ammunition and other tools that may not necessarily come from the military.
Chiu wrote that California's law enforcement agencies have acquired more military gear than any other state over the last 30 years, some of which made its way into local police departments through the U.S. military's 1033 program, which allowed cops to acquire surplus equipment at no cost and has transferred billions of dollars worth of property. In Mountain View's case, the law was used to acquire firearms -- specifically AR-15s -- that police officials say would've been purchased regardless of the program.
Yet Chiu said this trend is worrying, in part because of the lack of transparency and the potential misuse of equipment originally suited for military combat.
"The public often have little to no information about such acquisitions, which can cost local governments tens of millions of dollars," Chiu said in his rationale for the bill. "With troubling examples of this military equipment being used without clear protocol in recent years against peaceful demonstrators from Orange to Walnut Creek, it is time to reevaluate how law enforcement receives and implements war weapons in our communities."
The law was opposed by law enforcement organizations and Republican lawmakers in both the state Senate and Assembly.
Unlike other cities in the Bay Area, which have picked up eyebrow-raising equipment including mine-resistant armored vehicles, the Mountain View Police Department has only a handful of tools that fall under the term "military equipment." The list includes drones, breaching equipment that is explosive in nature, a "command and control" vehicle, sniper rifles and chemical munitions like tear gas.
Though the term "militarization" is used in the policy, it can be a bit misleading, said Police Chief Chris Hsiung at the April 26 meeting. The police drone and RV command vehicle fall under the state law and the umbrella of military equipment, but are available to the public as consumer products. What's more, he said many of the tools, particularly breaching equipment and long-range rifles, are rarely if ever used, and represent more options to approach difficult public safety situations.
"The tack that we use is, like any specialized piece of equipment, we want to be prepared for the worst case scenario to keep our community safe," Hsiung said.
The city already has rules for when and how cops can use drones, which can be used to patrol events or track suspects on the loose.
Though the council quickly accepted the policy and the continued use of military equipment, some residents raised concerns that the city is spending a disproportionate amount of money on cops and weapons for situations that rarely, if ever, occur. Tim MacKenzie said the city ought to focus on more pressing issues like traffic safety, and that sworn personnel shouldn't heavily outnumber community service officers.
"I reject the notion that public safety looks like uniformed people walking around in our streets with military weapons. That doesn't seem appropriate to me," MacKenzie said.
Resident Kevin Ma said the city should be more assertive that it would not use certain military equipment listed under AB 481, specifically a category that includes water cannons and "Taser Shockwave" and long-range acoustic devices. When asked about these tools, Hsiung said they would not be considered for use.
"There's nothing (in the category) philosophically I would be supportive of bringing to our city," he said.
Councilwoman Sally Lieber questioned whether some of these tools could be used against protestors at a political rally, which has been a growing problem in cities across the country in recent years. Hsiung said there are only specific situations in which crowd control techniques can be used, and that it would require a proclamation that the protest has become a "riot" that threatens the safety of those in attendance, those observing and the property where the demonstration is taking place.
Only then, and after multiple warnings, can protestors be considered in violation of the law and officers are permitted to deploy chemical munitions to get people to disperse, Hsiung said.