Welcome to “Urban Shield” (photo: Shane Bauer, Mother Jones)
Most of America first learned about the militarization of U.S. police forces when officers showed up at Ferguson, Missouri, civil rights rallies in body armor, carrying assault rifles and shields, accompanied by armored vehicles with heavy weapons.
Although the Pentagon has doled out $4.3 billion worth of military weapons and gear to local cops over the past 15 years or so, it hadn’t quite registered with folks that the peace officers serving their communities were becoming increasingly inclined to treat them as enemies on a battlefield.
Perhaps they would have known better if they had attended the 8th annual “Urban Shield” convention in Oakland over the weekend, where law enforcement personnel gathered from around the world. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department hosts the exposition—there are similar gatherings in Boston, Austin and Dallas—and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security contributed $1.37 million this year to the cause.
The five-day event includes a two-day trade show with the latest weaponry, surveillance equipment and gear on display. That is followed by two days of emergency preparedness training in locations scattered about the Bay Area.
“Urban Shield” is ostensibly aimed at disaster-preparedness with a heavy dose of counterterrorism activities. But a 2012 promotional video bears a striking resemblance to police encounters with Occupy Oakland protesters, sprinkled with “No War for Oil” and “Peace, Not Drone War” signs.
Oakland residents are none too pleased with their police department, which has been under federal control for some time. The force is a poster child for police overexuberance and has been operating under a Negotiated Settlement Agreement (NSA) and federal oversight since settling the Rough Riders civil lawsuit in 2003, which required the police department to institute 51 reforms.
The Rough Riders were a rogue group of officers whose behavior exposed widespread deficiencies in the agency and attracted national attention by planting evidence, using excessive force and falsifying police reports. The department continues to be the focus of repeated investigations and the subject of lawsuits claiming police abuse.
So, the prospect of Oakland police further manning up for its dealings with residents has some people alarmed. About 300 demonstrators descended on “Urban Shield” Friday and blocked some nearby streets in protest, but they may be a tad late to the party. On Saturday, Mayor Jean Quan said this would be the last year the event would be held in Oakland.
More than 8,000 law enforcement agencies have participated in the militarization of the police. Nationally, local agencies have received, at last count, 93,763 assault weapons, 180,718 magazines of ammunition, 44,900 night vision goggles, 533 aircraft, 432 armored mine-resistant vehicles and 435 other armored vehicles.
President Obama said last week that White House officials are reviewing the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, which authorizes the transfer of military goods to local police. But their party invites may also be dated.