California Lawmaker Proposes Limit on Police Military Gear

Assembly Member Chiu has proposed a bill that would prevent police agencies from buying certain types of military-style equipment, such as armored vehicles and drones, in hopes of cutting back the use of deadly force.

(TNS) — As demonstrations for racial justice swept California last summer, protesters complained that they were frequently met with excessive force from police who relied on militarized tactics to break up largely peaceful gatherings.

The controversy, which even caught the attention of Gov. Gavin Newsom, has prompted a Bay Area legislator to revive a bill that would limit the ability of state and local law enforcement agencies to buy military-style equipment — an approach that police groups say would interfere with their operations.

The bill, AB481 by Assembly Member David Chiu, D- San Francisco, would not directly ban any purchases. But it would prevent agencies from buying certain types of equipment, including armored vehicles, drones and explosives, without approval from city councils, county boards of supervisors and other governing bodies.

The measure would also require the law enforcement agencies to justify their need for the equipment, develop rules for using it and seek renewed permission every year, even for gear they have already bought. Chiu said decades of treating policing like a war has had harmful effects on people of color. Creating reviews for equipment purchases would give communities a greater voice in how they are policed, he said, and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the public.

"Our streets in California are not war zones. Our citizens are not enemy combatants," Chiu said. "The weapons and equipment they use should reflect that reality."

Law enforcement agencies have several ways to obtain military-style equipment, most notably a federal program that provides excess property from the military itself at little or no cost — everything from vehicles and rifles to clothing and office supplies.

Since the program was created in 1997, the military has transferred $7.5 billion worth of property to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies. Only 5 percent of that is small arms and less than 1 percent is tactical vehicles, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.

An investigation last summer by KGO-TV in San Francisco identified more than $11 million worth of equipment that Bay Area police agencies had received in the previous decade, including $361,000 worth of night vision viewers and a $185,000 bomb disposal robot for the San Francisco Police Department.

That pipeline has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. After widespread protests over police shootings, then-President Barack Obama restricted the program in 2015 from distributing certain types of gear, a ban that was later reversed by former President Donald Trump. Some members of Congress began pushing again last summer to curtail the transfers.

A 2018 study by a doctoral candidate at the University of South Carolina also found a correlation between police departments that had accepted more surplus military equipment and those with a higher rate of using deadly force on suspects.

Chiu's bill would require governing bodies to consider whether there is an alternative to buying military-style equipment, whether the purchase could be used disproportionately against some communities and whether it is the most cost-effective option.

The measure would cover mine-resistant armored vehicles, tactical trucks, rocket launchers, flash-bang grenades, large-caliber firearms, bayonets and camouflage uniforms, but also equipment that might not be exclusively associated with the military, including helicopters, battering rams and riot helmets, shields and batons.

"Before we are arming our police officers with the equipment that is used in Iraq and Afghanistan, we ought to have a conversation about whether it's necessary," Chiu said. "If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail."

A similar bill squeaked through the Legislature in 2018, after being significantly scaled back because of law enforcement opposition. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the measure, calling it "an unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle without commensurate public benefit."

Cory Salzillo, a lobbyist for the California State Sheriffs' Association, said the approach puts law enforcement agencies in the state at a disadvantage because the bidding process for surplus military equipment can move quickly. He also expressed concern about an overly broad list of gear that would need approval.

"If you're the police chief, if you're the sheriff, you should be able to make those decisions about purchasing equipment," he said.

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