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News + PoliticsHow much military-style equipment does the SFPD really need—and for what?

How much military-style equipment does the SFPD really need—and for what?

Tanks, assault rifles, chemical projectiles ... the supes have a chance to weigh in on the inventory and the rules. That's The Agenda for Oct. 23 to 30.

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It’s been quite a while since the San Francisco Police Department has had to deal with a highly armed militia or gang of robbers and kidnappers heavily barricaded in a second-floor room and refusing to surrender.

I’m not sure it’s happened even once in the 40 years I’ve been a reporter in this city.

But if that were ever to be a problem, the SFPD is ready: The department has a Lenco BearCat with a Patriot 3 Liberator Ramp System. That’s a mine-resistant armed vehicle that can carry 12 fully equipped officers and includes an 11-foot battering ram and a special tactical ramp that can lift a cadre of cops up to a second story to mount a massive assault.

Here’s how the SFPD describes the vehicle:

It can stop various projectiles, which provides greater safety to citizens and officers beyond the protection level of shield and personal body armor. A battering ram attachment can be attached to the Lenco Bearcat for breaching purpose. The battering ram attachment is an 11 foot by 2 inch tubing with an octagon shaped strike plate on one end. The battering ram can be attached to the front or rear of the BearCat so it can be used to breach a door or structure without exposing an officer to any potential gunfire. The Patriot 3 Liberator ramp system is a hydraulic ramp that can extend to a second story level so officers can enter a structure through a window, or an airplane is (sic) needed.

It cost $335,000.

That’s just one of the military-grade vehicles, assault weapons, and other gear that the SFPD keeps on hand.

We got the list because under state law, the department has to inform the supes once a year what types of advanced weaponry it owns, and how and when that might be used.

The Rules Committee will consider the list Monday/24.

Among the other items on the department inventory:

A CTS 4340 OC Liquid Barricade shell that can be fired from what amounts to a mortar; it’s designed to penetrate a window or wall and excrete “irritant agents.” From the company website:

This product can expose you to chemicals including Lead Salts and Hexavalent Chromium.

Hexavalent Chromium is the deadly chemical that PG&E dumped near Hinkley, CA, poisoning the water and leading to the movie Erin Brockovitch. Lead salts, of course, cause serious health impacts.

But apparently it’s okay to fire this into a room full of people to debilitate them.

A Powder Barricade that does much the same thing.

Flash-bang grenades, which are, the cops say, an explosive device that produces a blinding flash of light and a sudden, loud noise intended to temporarily stun, distract, and disperse people and it is thrown by hand or projected.

A bunch of spy robots:

IRobot FirstLook is a throwable, rugged, and expandable robot that provides immediate situational awareness, performs persistent observation, and investigates dangerous and hazardous material while keeping its operator out of harm’s way. FirstLook allows operations where other robots can’t fit or maneuver. This rugged, lightweight robot can be inserted into structures and provides operators with visual, audio, and sensor feedback before entry. The robot climbs small obstacles, overcomes curbs, turns in place and self-rights when flipped over. Recon Robotics Recon Scout ThrowBot: Throwable micro-robot platform that enables operators to obtain instantaneous video and audio reconnaissance within indoor or outdoor environments.

And a whole lot more. You can read the entire list here.

I’m not so sure why the SFPD needs all this stuff. And there are very few, and very vague, restrictions on how they can use it. They can, in essence, use the gear anytime and anyway they want (for example, to “serve a warrant”), and if they use up all the shells and projectiles they can just go buy more.

Betty Traynor, a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, isn’t so sure either. In a letter she sent to the committee when this first came up in July, she notes:

AB 481 is a new law that requires California law enforcement agencies to publish information about a range of militarized gear used in policing and jails, and to obtain approval of policies about the use of this military equipment. SFPD’s proposal for military equipment has several problems, including points of noncompliance with AB 481. Examples include:

– The proposed policy excludes both an inventory and policy for assault rifles that SFPD possesses.

– The proposed policy is missing independent oversight required by AB 481.

– The proposed policy doesn’t define authorized uses, and grants limitless authorization.

– The proposed policy fails to comply with AB481’s ban on chemical and impact weapons (tear gas and rubber bullets) for crowd control. Also, the proposed policy doesn’t limit use on persons experiencing mental health crises—including those indicating self-harm. The policy for deploying armored vehicles is ambiguous and vague, with no limits on authorized uses.

Important Question: Does the use policy exclude or prohibit use of military equipment for public relations purposes or activities, such as bringing an armored vehicle to a fair or school? It should—we do not want children thinking armored vehicles or other military equipment are toys to play with and thus harmless.

Regina Sneed, a lawyer and WILPF member, noted in an Oct 20 letter to the committee:

San Francisco is a city of peace and does not favor the militarization of the police. With this ordinance, the Board has an obligation to review why we need the equipment and whether there are alternate means to accomplish policing policies and programs to protect the public. 

Military equipment is more frequently deployed in low-income Black and Brown communities meaning that the impacts of misuse of military equipment is more acutely felt in these communities.  Recent news reports indicate that the police and regulators of the police can not yet agree on a use of force policy.  Will military equipment be misused if we do not have clear and specific descriptions for its usage that can be understood by citizens.

The ordinance lists all the equipment and it’s permitted use but does not adequately explain the actual operational costs which from a citizens perspective includes the purchase price, the storage costs, the maintenence cost, the cost of operation, the training of operators and any need for replacements.  Will the annual report provide a cost benefit analysis to determine whether we need the item at all or whether there is a better less costly option.   The citizens want  better community policing and social services.  Where should our limited funds go?

There are a few specific concerns that I do not think have been sufficiently addressed in the ordinance.  In the description of use for some equipment, it is not clear to me how different special populations such as people with developmental disabilities, people with language barriers and people who can not hear or see would be protected.  The ban on use of equipment must be very clear for these populations.

I am not clear whether this draft contains the required ban against use of chemical weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets from being used to control crowds. San Franciscans enjoy their protected first amendment rights to protest peacefully. The ordinance should reflect these rights.

Yeah. A lot for the committee to address. The meeting starts at 10am.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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