California Getting First Look at New Law on Police Equipment
A slew of California police departments, from Long Beach to Pleasanton, are set to discuss “military grade equipment” with their city councils. This comes as a recently effective law places limits on law enforcement and state agencies acquiring and using martial hardware. Intended to curb police militarization, the act is noteworthy for its potential to increase financial transparency, accountability, and to slow down police surveillance.
Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 481 back in September of 2021, though May 2022 was when the law became enforceable. The bill requires local law enforcement to receive explicit approval from their governing body, such as a city council, to use or procure a wide range of “military equipment.”
Not only are equipment purchases regulated, but borrowing or leasing the equipment also counts as an acquisition. For the purpose of the law, military equipment includes, among others, the following:
- Weaponized aircraft
- Tanks, MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles), and armored personnel carriers, excluding police versions of consumer vehicles
- Taser shockwaves and microwave weapons (area denial systems)
- Long-range acoustic devices (also referred to as LRADs or “sound cannons”)
- Unmanned vehicles (drones)
- Explosive breaching tools, including flashbang grenades, tear gas, and pepper balls
- Firearms of .50 caliber or greater, standard-issue shotguns, excluding shotgun ammo, and the bill does not delve into regulating gauge
Section 2 of the act clarifies that AB 481 does not include “general equipment” designated as “prohibited or controlled” by the federal Defense Logistics Agency. AB 481 also requires that agencies create a military equipment use policy. Agencies must publish this policy on their website and regularly report how police use the equipment.
Once the equipment has been approved, police still need to disclose total costs. This includes purchases, upgrades, maintenance and storage. Agencies must document any complaints concerning the equipment, and violations of the use policy.
Over the past few years, drones have become quite a contentious subject in local California politics. Privacy activists acknowledge that there are good reasons police may want to operate drones, such as for search and rescue missions. Still, activists understandably fear police using weaponized drones or using drones to collect data on the public.
Complicating this issue is that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules would likely preempt many state or local rules. As Faine Greenwood, an expert in civilian drone technology, emphasized, “While the FAA is in charge of regulating drones in the United States, the agency has been decidedly hesitant toward writing rules that pertain to privacy or aerial surveillance.”
In some part, the bill quells some concerns over police drones, which have exploded in popularity with local units in recent years. Counting drones under the category of military equipment gives residents a little more say in their city’s use of drones. City police now need their drones greenlighted by their city councils.
Why the Change?
Lead author of the text, David Chiu, who was at the time of the bill’s proposal an Assemblyman representing the 17th District (San Francisco), now San Francisco’s City Attorney, remarked:
California’s local law enforcement agencies have acquired more military equipment than any other state over the last 30 years. Yet the public often have little to no information about such acquisitions, which can cost local governments tens of millions of dollars. With troubling examples of this military equipment being used without clear protocol in recent years against peaceful demonstrators from Orange to Walnut Creek, it is time to reevaluate how law enforcement receives and implements war weapons in our communities.
This bill is about rebuilding community trust. Our streets in California are not war zones, and our citizens are not enemy combatants. Law enforcement in California are our partners in public safety, and the weapons and equipment they carry should reflect that reality.
The impetus for AB 481 also comes from years of the Pentagon outfitting local law enforcement agencies via the 1033 program, which grants police departments surplus military equipment. Since its inception in 1997, the price tag of equipment transferred to local law enforcement is in the billions of dollars. Contemporary research has shown that police militarization provides “no detectable benefits in terms of officer safety or violent crime reduction, on average.”
The effects of AB 481 are likely to be a worthwhile case study for other states. How likely governing bodies are to approve the equipment their agencies request will be interesting to find out. Will complaints go down? Moreover, in the long term, will this save taxpayers money? Only time will tell.