San Jose regulates police use of military equipment

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The San Jose Police Department has hundreds of military-grade items in its armory and is asking for more. City officials are scrutinizing the request.

The City Council unanimously approved a new policy on Tuesday, which guides how the San Jose Police Department should pay for, acquire and use certain types of gear considered military-level equipment—including armored vehicles, various rifles and shotguns and unmanned aircraft or drones it already owns.

The policy stems from Assembly Bill 481, a state law approved last September that requires governing bodies of law enforcement agencies to adopt regulations for any equipment the police department previously obtained that’s considered military-level equipment. Santa Clara began tracking its own use of military-grade equipment earlier this year.

The law also requires police to annually report to the public how it used the equipment, complaints received, internal audits or violations of the policy and costs to use equipment, according to San Jose Police Chief Anthony Mata.

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The military equipment inventory shows SJPD has more than 700 military-grade pieces of equipment totaling several million dollars.

“This equipment is used in extremely dangerous situations to protect the community, but also (to protect) the officers safely resolving the situation,” Mata said.

Mayor Sam Liccardo said guidance on how police cannot use certain equipment is missing from the policy. He asked SJPD to return next year with more articulated restrictions.

“It’s really important for the police department to prescribe what exactly it’s not going to do,” Liccardo said. “Particularly with these kinds of instruments, because there is heightened public concern and there have been abuses in other police departments.”

At the meeting, police officials also requested more than $1 million for two pieces of equipment: a BearCat Medvac armored medical vehicle used in emergency situations, and a ROOK, similar to a small bulldozer outfitted with armor and bulletproof glass that can break down doors and protect police from shooters.

ROOK, a bulldozer-like armored vehicle. Photo courtesy of San Jose Police Department.

Several elected officials, including Councilmember Pam Foley, urged police to utilize grants to purchase the equipment. Police argued it would take two years to have the equipment at their disposal, so they prefer the city purchase them. City Manager Jennifer Maguire said the city will look to see if it has one-time funds at its disposal, but no decision was made.

“I’m struggling with the fact that even if this was budgeted, that we’re using taxpayer dollars for it when there are potentially grant funds out there available,” Foley said.

John Lindsay-Poland, who co-directs the California Healing Justice program at the American Friends Service Committee, shared concerns at the meeting on what having military equipment means for residents.

“With the ROOK, is it only restricted in use when a subject is threatening with firearms or are there any limits on use, besides the kind of situation that the officer described to you?” Lindsey-Poland said. “Unfortunately, a lot of the policies, including the underlying policy manual, don’t articulate clearly when it is okay to use some of this equipment and when it is not.”

His sentiments were similar to those shared at last week’s Santa Clara County Community Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring Committee meeting, where criminal justice advocates said AB 481 provided transparency but not accountability.

Members—which include Silicon Valley De-Bug co-founder Raj Jayadev and San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP President Bob Nuñez—discussed the county’s potential use of trackers on inmates in county jail, arguing the devices are inhumane and unnecessary like much of the military-grade equipment in local law enforcement departments.

“This Assembly bill gave us the opportunity to kind of look in and see the other side of the wall that we weren’t privileged to see in the past, (and what we’re seeing) is terrifying,” said Darcie Green, CEO and executive director of Latinas Contra Cancer. “We need to scrutinize and ask why our law enforcement feels the need to be at war with the community and push back on our policymakers to continue to ask that same question.”

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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