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Oakland's proposed Controlled Equipment Ordinance

Many communities are concerned about police departments’ acquisition and deployment of military-grade equipment in events ranging from public protests to parades and service of drug warrants. In Oakland, the use of grenade-like projectiles, armored vehicles, and military-grade assault weapons by OPD officers has resulted in harm to residents, controversy, and costly lawsuits. In March 2018, Oakland police used the tank-like BearCat armored vehicle as a shooting platform and AR-15 rifles in the killing of Joshua Pawlik.

Oakland PD uses force disproportionately against black residents. And several studies conclude that police departments that acquire military-grade equipment are more likely to use violence and are no more successful in reducing crime.

Yet Oakland has no policy for the acquisition or use of militarized equipment. Oakland PD can acquire and use militarized equipment of all kinds - anywhere, at any time, with no policy for its use or public reporting of what is has or how it is used.

Now Oakland has an opportunity to exercise community control over the militarization of policing in Oakland, by adopting an ordinance that will require approval by the City Council for the acquisition of military equipment, and use policies and reporting for military equipment that OPD has or obtains.

The Oakland Police Commission unanimously recommended enactment of the proposed ordinance in June 2020, but the City Council did not agendize the ordinance until this Spring. The City Council Public Safety Committee unanimously approved the ordinance, 4-0, on June 8, and forwarded it to the full City Council, on the consent agenda for Tuesday, June 15 at 1:30 pm (agenda here). Public comment will be heard at the beginning of that meeting (zoom link here).

The ordinance will require that the civilian Police Commission review proposed acquisitions and use policies for armored vehicles, assault weapons, weaponized aircraft, battering rams, sonic weapons, and flash-bang grenades. This will apply to equipment that OPD acquires with grants or with purchases from the city budget. The proposal is modeled on Oakland’s surveillance equipment ordinance, and requires policies for use, approval of those policies by the City Council, and public reporting on how these weapons are used. 

The ordinance is modeled after Oakland's surveillance equipment ordinance, which has the same provisions for use policies, Council approval and reporting. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is this ordinance needed?

Like other police departments, OPD has obtained more militarized equipment in the last two decades that is used during protests and in SWAT operations that are deployed disproportionately against Black people. But militarized equipment lacks transparency and civilian-directed decisions on acquisition and use policies. This ordinance creates a process for oversight and transparency about the acquisition and use of militarized gear.

Who is impacted by militarized police gear?

Oakland PD stops Black people more than white people in Oakland, according to Stops data. This puts Black people at greater risk of being subjected to militarized equipment than white people - another reason why OPD should have clear and reasonable use policies for equipment and transparent reporting on its use.

What equipment does the ordinance cover and how was this list of equipment created?

The types of weapons and equipment covered by the proposed ordinance originated in President Obama's Executive Order 13688 in 2015, which controlled some weapons and banned others for distribution from the Pentagon 1033 program to police departments. Trump rescinded EO 13688 in 2017; President Biden is expected to restore the Obama policy. In 2018, California AB 3131 would have created a process for community oversight of militarized equipment across California, from the Pentagon as well as from other sources. AB 3131 passed the legislature but was vetoed by then-Governor Brown. This ordinance is modeled on Oakland's existing surveillance ordinance. 

What is the status of the proposed ordinance?

A Police Commission ad hoc committee edited the ordinance over the course of several meetings, and the full Commission unanimously approved the ordinance on June 25 and submitted it to the City Council for action. (The Commission's approved version of the ordinance is here.) The City Council Public Safety Committee will consider the revised ordinance on Tuesday, June 8, at 1:30 pm

What can I do to support passage of the ordinance?

Sign the petition to support the militarized equipment ordinance. 

Watch the January 2021 Advocacy Training organized by AFSC, BAY Peace and Council of American Islamic Relations.

What transparency does the ordinance create that doesn't exist now?

OPD currently is not required to disclose what or how much equipment it currently has, the financial costs, adverse impacts, alternatives to the equipment, locations of use, whether use was connected to a warrant, whether equipment involves third parties, or number of times the equipment was deployed (unless it was a use of force). 

Oakland's proposed Use of Force policy requires public reports on uses of force, which include uses of firearms, chemical agents and blunt weapons such as batons. OPD deployments of armored vehicles, LRADs, battering rams, and assault rifles are not part of any public report. Reports to California Department of Justice on lethal use of force by police do not report by type of equipment.

What equipment covered by the ordinance does Oakland PD already have?

OPD has assault rifles; armored vehicles; battering rams and firearm rounds used to break locks; pepper spray; launchers and projectiles for "less lethal" weapons; long batons used in crowd control; riot shields that can be used defensively or offensively; Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs), sometimes called "sound cannons".

Why regulate LRADs?

LRADs can emit extremely loud sounds and voice commands, which is useful to effectively communicate over distances, but can also be used in a crowd to forcibly disperse people, much as firehoses have been used. Oakland and New York PD have used LRADs in this manner, and a federal court ruled against its use as “excessive force” in crowd control in 2018. 

How does the ordinance relate to the court injunction against OPD's use of tear gas?

The U.S. District Court banned the use by OPD of tear gas, other chemical weapons, rubber bullets, and flash bang grenades against protests in June 2020, except in very limited circumstances. The Court narrowly modified its order in October to permit outside agencies to deploy with these weapons, again only in limited circumstances. The ordinance would not change the court's ban. 

How will the ordinance affect OPD's use of the "Bearcat" and armored vehicles?

As a result of OPD's killing of Joshua Pawlik in March 2018, when officers used the Bearcat tank-like vehicle as a "shooting platform" according to the federal monitor, a federal court ordered Oakland to establish a Training Bulletin for the use of armored vehicles, including the Bearcat, by the end of February 2021. The Oakland Police Commission established an Ad Hoc Committee to develop such a training bulletin, which was adopted by the Police Commission on Thursday, February 11. At a community listening session convened by the Ad Hoc Committee on January 11, community members called for Oakland to get rid of the Bearcat as an expression of war in the city's streets. While it adds some restrictions to its use, it is likely that the training bulletin would not have changed the deployment of the Bearcat in the circumstances that led to the killing of Joshua Pawlik.

The training bulletin adopted by the Police Commission did not phase out or eliminate the Bearcat from Oakland, but the Commission agreed to make a resolution for phasing out the Bearcat within two years. 

If the Controlled Equipment Ordinance becomes law, within a year the OPD will need to submit an impact statement as well as policy for the use of armored vehicles, and the Commission and Council will have another chance to revise policies for armored vehicles in the City. 

Does the ordinance ban any equipment used by Oakland PD? 

No. The ordinance creates a process for civilian oversight and transparency. Oversight can include recommendations from the Police Commission and decisions by City Council to exclude the use of specified weapons in Oakland. 

Does the ordinance apply to other police forces that come into Oakland for "mutual aid"?

Yes. It is critical that Oakland not allow outside agencies invited into Oakland to use equipment - or to use it in a manner - that is not allowed under Oakland policy.  Oakland has the authority to tell outside agencies coming into the City for mutual aid what equipment uses are permitted and what is prohibited. Oakland’s mutual aid policy, in force since 2014, requires that “Prior to deployment, outside law enforcement units shall respond to a designated staging area where… their less-lethal weapons and munitions will be inventoried and they will be told which weapons and munitions are prohibited according to Departmental Policy.” The OPD mutual aid policy also states that visiting officers deployed for mutual aid “shall comply with all applicable Departmental policy including but not limited to: Use of force; Report writing; Crowd control and management; Taking complaints.”

Does the ordinance duplicate Oakland's Use of Force policy or other existing policies?

No. The Use of Force policy approved in July 2020 creates rules for how force may be used, but not for how weapons named in the equipment ordinance may be used. The proposed ordinance seeks to make transparent the use of equipment that has a strong psychological impact on the community, however and whenever it is used. According to the ACLU report War Comes Home, such equipment nationally is used in SWAT deployments disproportionately in African American and Latin. neighborhoods and households. 

That is why reporting on its deployment is important - not only in acts defined as uses of force that can do physical harm to people’s bodies. For example, the deployment of a SWAT team armed with assault rifles to a home to serve a search warrant, even if the rifles are not pointed directly at people, can be traumatic to those present and permanently damage relations with law enforcement.  Moreover, the provision for analysis of uses of force makes no reference at all to the armored vehicle, battering rams, firearm rounds used to breach entrances, or LRADs used at protests.  

OPD has use policies for a few of the items covered by the proposed ordinance, including ‘less lethal’ projectiles and their launchers, tear gas (now prohibited), and batons. Some of the policies, such as the assault rifle policy, say almost nothing about when equipment should - and should not - be deployed. The existing use policies provide a starting point for use policies required by the proposed ordinance.

What are the "uses" of equipment that require reporting under the ordinance?

AFSC proposes that, for the purposes of reporting, "use of equipment shall refer to deployments in which equipment is publicly displayed or visible or is deployed in an operation or critical response, not to transfers of location or placement of equipment inside Department vehicles."

Who supports this ordinance? 

Reforms to demilitarize police are advancing all over the country. This ordinance in Oakland is supported by 40 community organizations.

The Alameda County Labor Council issued a resolution in July in favor of this ordinance.

Berkeley approved a very similar Controlled Equipment Ordinance in April 2021. More information here.

For more information 

Video of November 2020 Townhall on Demilitarizing OPD 

Jonathan Mummolo, “Militarization fails to enhance police safety or reduce crime but may harm police reputation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 11, 2018 (37) 9181-9186.

Casey Delehanty, Jack Mewhirter, Ryan Welch and Jason Wilks, “Militarization and police violence: The case of the 1033 program,” Research and Politics, April-June 2017, 1-7; and Edward Lawson Jr., “Police Militarization and the Use of Lethal Force,” Political Research Quarterly, 2018, 1-13.

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