With the passage of a new state bill, California's police departments and sheriff's offices are facing unprecedented oversight of their so-called "military equipment" arsenals.
Assembly Bill 481, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in September 2021, gives governing bodies regulatory power over all such equipment owned by local law enforcement agencies.
Introduced in February 2021 by state Assembly member David Chiu, D-San Francisco, the bill seeks to increase transparency and control by requiring law enforcement to document the existence and use of all military equipment in their possession. In addition to submitting an annual report, agencies are required to get approval before acquiring any new equipment, including everything from armored vehicles and high-caliber firearms to chemical weapons and launchers.
"The public often have little to no information about such acquisitions, which can cost local governments tens of millions of dollars," Chiu wrote in an Assembly Floor analysis report. "This bill is about rebuilding community trust."
With the first annual reports due starting in May 2023, law enforcement agencies throughout the state, including in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, are tasked with inventorying their arsenals, which include hundreds of thousands of ammunition rounds and unmanned devices like drones and robots. So far Atherton, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Redwood City and Santa Clara and San Mateo counties have approved new policy ordinances.
Experts and policymakers alike hope that greater transparency and accountability will help repair fractured police-civilian relations.
"This bill is about rebuilding community trust. Our streets in California are not war zones, and our citizens are not enemy combatants," Chiu wrote. "Law enforcement in California are our partners in public safety."
Under AB 481, all law enforcement agencies in California seeking to continue to use military equipment acquired before Jan. 1 had to begin a multistep approval process with their local governing bodies.
Each department was required to draft and seek approval for a Military Equipment Use Policy describing each piece of equipment in its possession and the authorized uses. The deadline to begin the process was May 1; approval was required within 180 days of submitting the policy or use of the equipment would be suspended.
In the coming years, agencies are required to track the type and amount of all military-grade equipment in their possession on an ongoing basis. This information, as well as details about how the equipment has been used and any associated use of force reports, will be disclosed to the local governing bodies in an annual report.
All reports are to be made publicly available online, and residents will be invited to attend an annual community engagement meeting to discuss the report's findings. Agencies are also required to seek legislative approval before acquiring any new military equipment or for using existing equipment in a way not previously approved.
Know your arsenal
Law enforcement agencies along the Peninsula currently have military equipment arsenals valued at thousands, if not millions, of dollars.
Both the San Mateo and Santa Clara county sheriff's offices have spent upwards of $2 million, not including annual maintenance and operations costs, on everything from semi-automatic rifles to tear gas to infrared drones. Palo Alto has spent the most among its surrounding cities, with equipment adding up to $418,820.
The Redwood City Police Department's equipment, which includes items from eight of the 15 categories named on the state's military equipment list, is valued at more than $258,755, not including annual costs. Among the city's items are "less-lethal" equipment, including launchers and shotguns for kinetic, foam and beanbag rounds; diversionary devices such as flashbangs, pepper balls and tear gas; drones and unmanned robots; a breaching shotgun; and a mobile command vehicle. Several other types of equipment — including a Lenco BearCat vehicle, an armored rescue vehicle and several drones — are owned and operated by other local emergency agencies within the city limits.
All Redwood City patrol officers are equipped with a semi-automatic patrol rifle and baton launcher, a device that looks like a rifle and shoots sponge, bean bag, wooden and plastic projectiles that are meant to impact the body rather than penetrate it.
Redwood City and Mountain View police departments have just over 100 semi-automatic rifles each, and Redwood City has more than two dozen sniper rifles and machine guns for use by SWAT officers only.
Menlo Park has a few sniper rifles and nonlethal flash-bang grenades, and it depends on the San Mateo County Sheriff's SWAT for militarized equipment such as surveillance and building-breaching equipment, according to its equipment-use policy. In crisis situations requiring the use of equipment such as bomb-disposal robots or advanced sniper weaponry, the county sheriff's department SWAT team can be asked to come out to assist the city police department through "interoperability" agreements between the departments.
Palo Alto's arsenal includes more than 100 flash-bang launchers, a SWAT rifle and nonlethal projectile launchers. The city has invested heavily in an advanced mobile-command-unit program and long-range acoustic device equipment, which delivers extremely high decibel levels for crowd control or to deliver instructions during natural disasters or other emergencies. It relies on Mountain View and the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office for more advanced military equipment through joint interoperability programs.
Mountain View is the most heavily invested of the northern Santa Clara County city departments in terms of the amount of equipment, with a large quantity of flash-bang launchers, chemical munitions, less-lethal projectiles, an aerial surveillance system (drone), robot and mobile-command center. The department is evaluating a large caliber sniper program.
East Palo Alto interim police Chief Jeff Liu said the only piece of military equipment his department possesses and deploys is a less lethal 40mm launcher, which is used as an alternative to deadly force.
"My officers handle mental health crisis calls with empathy and compassion. Our officers already have the adequate equipment available to them to perform their duties, and I do not feel we need any additional 'military equipment,'" he said.
Liu also noted that East Palo Alto is a small community with a relatively small police department.
"We do not have the same specialized teams that larger departments have, and thus do not need to procure any of the associated equipment that fit this definition," he said.
What is military equipment anyway?
There is no standard definition of the term "military equipment," a fact that, even as law enforcement agencies seek to implement AB 481, has caused confusion and some consternation.
The United States Department of Defense's Office of Corrosion Policy and Oversight defines military equipment as "all weapon systems, weapon platforms, vehicles, and munitions of the Department of Defense, and the components of such items." However, this definition is not referenced directly in the state bill, which appears to sidestep a definition in favor of listing items that the bill's collaborators — California legislators as well as bill sponsors and statewide law enforcement groups — deem to be 'military equipment.
An initial version of the bill described military equipment as "equipment that is militaristic in nature," but the line was subsequently removed from the text. The final version of the law does not define military equipment but instead lists items in 15 categories.
Military equipment, as outlined in the state law, includes all chemical agents, specialized firearms and munitions, projectile launchers, flashbang devices, auxiliary vehicles and remotely operated devices.
Jen Kwart, communications director for Chiu, said that the state bill should not be seen as the "end-all be-all definition of military equipment across all of California."
"These laws are very specific as to what the definitions mean and apply to. This law didn't say this is what the state of California believes is military equipment across the board," she said. "This is the definition for the purposes of complying with this specific code section."
But some law enforcement personnel take issue with the term "military equipment" — and the implied dangers the weapons and other supplies pose to the general public.
"We haven't purchased any from the military or received any through military programs," Lt. Eamonn Allen of the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office said. "These are all civilian types of equipment."
The county's Bearcat, for example, is a significantly less "heavy-duty" armored personnel carrier than the type used by the military, he said, calling it the "civilian version of these vehicles." And yet, the Bearcat qualifies under the state bill to be categorized as military equipment.
Palo Alto Police acting Capt. James Reifschneider agreed "military equipment" may not accurately describe what a law enforcement agency has in its arsenal.
"The phrase 'military-grade equipment' may be unintentionally misleading to readers — at least as applied to PAPD," he said in an email. "While we possess certain pieces of equipment that are now statutorily-defined as 'military equipment,' these items are all designed specifically for a law enforcement (not military) application.
"While AB 481 does also cover true military-grade equipment (e.g. 'surplus' equipment originally supplied to the U.S. Armed Forces but then given to a police agency), PAPD does not use this type of equipment and is not in possession of any of it like some other agencies in the Bay Area," Reifschneider said.
However, Kwart pushed back on terminology and characterizations not included in the official state text.
"'Military-grade equipment' is not a term that is used in the bill," she said. "So for purposes of analyzing local jurisdictions' obligations under the law, they should use the definition of 'military equipment' that is spelled out in the law."
Stanford Law Professor David Sklansky concurred that the military equipment category "can be hard to define."
He said that equipment that "seems inarguably military," like certain kinds of arms, can still be appropriate for police department use. On the other hand, he argued that some less obviously "military" equipment may also be in the hands of public safety officers. And that could be a cause for concern.
"Drones are a perfect example of this," Sklansky said. "Even drones that don't seem military raise concerns about privacy. And communities may have concerns about the police using them."
Free surplus from the U.S. military
So what are the roots of the phrase "military equipment"? While not the complete source of local law enforcement's military arsenals, local agencies have, for years, been the recipients of free, surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense (DOD). Under the federal 1033 Program, which came about under then-President George H. W. Bush in the early 1990s, the DOD is legally required to make excess equipment available to local police forces. Since then, some 8,200 law enforcement agencies have participated in the program which, as of 2020, has facilitated the transfer of over $7.5 billion in equipment, according to the administering Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).
"Weapons, military-grade vehicles, devices that can be used for a forced entry into residences, military-style clothing, bayonets," said Sklansky, naming a few examples. "Police departments get all kinds of equipment that the military winds up not needing and that's provided to departments free or at reduced rates."
Some of this equipment has made its way into the hands of law enforcement throughout the Peninsula.
In 2015, Mountain View acquired 20 M-16 rifles worth nearly $15,000 for free from the military under its 1033 surplus equipment program, while San Jose has several dozen items, including cameras, armored vehicles and night vision goggles, valued at more than $900,000.
The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office was the recipient of a single camouflage set in 2014.
In San Mateo County, Defense Logistics Agency records show that the cities of Belmont, San Mateo and East Palo Alto have received nearly $215,000 worth of surplus equipment from the DOD, including rifles, thermal imaging cameras and — in Belmont and San Mateo — military robots.
Robots have generated controversy recently, with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voting on Tuesday to ban using the robots in its arsenal to deliver and detonate explosives against a suspect. Not all robots have this capacity; many are used instead to surveil, deliver messages or to sense and manipulate objects.
The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office has robots identical to what San Francisco Police Department has — ones that can be "armed with small explosive charges or shotgun shells." But Allen said it would be a "huge violation" of the county's policy for the robots to be used against a civilian, suspect or even animal. The sheriff's robots are used "specifically for explosive ordnance disposal," he said.
The Redwood City Police Department sparked some outrage among community members in 2014 after acquiring a mine-resistant vehicle worth roughly $750,000 from the U.S. government. The vehicle ultimately was returned to the federal government in 2020, and the department has currently no other equipment through the 1033 program.
"Having that particular vehicle was always somewhat controversial," said Capt. Ashley Osborne. "It was too large and heavy to be practical and it presented an image inconsistent with our desire to be a community oriented police department."
Not all equipment comes from federal surplus, however. The Mountain View Police Department acquired its Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle during a 2006 criminal investigation during which officers confiscated the weapon. The department now owns it.
Law enforcement agencies have also historically used grants and general funds to finance the purchase of various types of equipment. The Palo Alto Police Department purchased its Mobile Emergency Command Center in 2010 with $300,000 in grant funding — $150,000 from the Homeland Security Grant Program and $150,000 from Homeland Security's Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative plus $375,000 in city funding. The MEOC is not a "military vehicle," the department said, but it could support coordination with the National Guard, FEMA and other cooperating agencies after major disasters.
This distinction between military- and civilian-grade equipment has caused some confusion among the communities that law enforcement agencies serve. During the April 19 meeting of the San Mateo County Board, Supervisor Warren Slocum asked the sheriff for clarification.
"This item is listed under the topic of 'military equipment,' but I thought I heard the sheriff say that the sheriff's office doesn't currently have any military equipment and doesn't have any plans to purchase military equipment," he said. "So, why is this matter referred to as 'military equipment?'"
"In our interpretation, military equipment or military grade equipment would be ... what is used by the military as well or from military contracts," Allen said. "We don't have any equipment like that."
Nicholas Perna, a Redwood City police sergeant, said that using the term "military equipment" was "painting it with a very broad brush."
"I was in the army for 13 years," he said. "Military-style helmets and vests worn by military and law enforcement — they're just there for protection, to stop rounds. It's protective gear, no different than wearing goggles or protective glasses."
Resident Elsa Shafer also voiced her concerns during public comment.
"I think there is an unnecessary delineation between whether it's being bought from the military or whether it's military-grade," she said. "I don't understand what the reason is to need it in our county ... I personally would like to know in what situations it would have improved an interaction."
A move toward transparency
Allen of the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office said that his agency is generally supportive of the new legislation as a means of increasing transparency.
"We're responsible to the community, and the taxes that they pay fund our salaries; they fund the equipment we have," he said. "So adding an extra layer of transparency and visibility, and accountability, we're happy to comply with."
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian said that as far back as 2020 the supervisors, and he in particular, wanted to know what military equipment the sheriff's office possesses, what policies are in place for its use, and under what circumstances the equipment could be used. In 2021, after learning the legislature had a good chance of passing AB 481, he waited to further pursue the issue because the law would give the board real statutory authority.
He's pleased with the scope of the new state law. If an agency doesn't comply, the county or a local governmental body could decide not to fund the military weapons. Plus, AB 481 has a provision requiring that a law enforcement agency must stop using its military equipment if the local governmental body hasn't approved the policy, list and annual report in subsequent years.
Osborne, of the Redwood City Police Department, doubted that the new ordinance would change how law enforcement trains with or uses its military-grade equipment. He said one of the biggest changes would be the additional burden of reporting.
"We have to produce a report that's pretty comprehensive — money spent, how equipment is used, any feedback we get," he said. "Certainly it's going to take up a good bit of administrative time, probably more this first year as we figure it out."
Still, he agreed with Allen about the added public benefit.
"The reporting requirements will probably require us to take a better look at the overall cost of things," he said. "It will be public information, so that increases transparency with feedback from city council and community."
He also hoped that the annual report and public meetings would help educate the community and dispel some "misconceptions about what (equipment) we have and how we use it."