Megan Cassidy San Francisco Chronicle
ALMEDA COUNTY, Calif. — Alameda County supervisors voted Tuesday to overhaul the controversial Urban Shield law enforcement training program run by the sheriff’s office, stripping the annual conference — attended by agencies throughout the Bay Area — of trainings that police say were vital.
The move eliminates SWAT deployment exercises and the event’s vendor show, which showcases law-enforcement gadgets and weaponry, among other things.
Sheriff Gregory Ahern warned that the changes could violate the terms of the agency’s grant funding — worth $5 million — and lead to the unraveling of the entire Urban Shield conference.
Urban Shield dates to 2007 in Alameda County, and is tailored to prepare first responders for large-scale disasters such as an earthquake, a terrorist attack or a mass shooting. Participants include police, deputies, firefighters and emergency responders from throughout the area.
But critics have long argued that Urban Shield promotes the militarization of police, eroding trust between law enforcement and communities of color. SWAT teams, some pointed out, were far more likely to be used in minority communities for the serving of search warrants than to engage in active shooter scenarios. Urban Shield conferences have attracted protesters outside the events.
Supporters of the conference, who include police officers, deputies and firefighters, say the training helps them prepare for life-or-death situations.
The two sides faced off at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. Dozens of the program’s supporters and critics packed into a conference room at the Alameda County Administration Building in what one sheriff’s deputy called the “Super Bowl of board meetings.”
For two minutes apiece, each attendee made an impassioned plea before the supervisors, arguing that the current program was either a vital public safety tool or due for an overhaul.
The dispute centered on an ad hoc committee’s 63 recommendations to redefine the event — recommendations that were mostly supported by community activists and mostly opposed by law enforcement.
Supervisors ultimately sided with the committee and community activists, adopting all but three of the recommendations. The vote was approved by every supervisor aside from Scott Haggerty, District 1, who left the meeting early.
“No one is trying to get rid of this whole thing,” said District 3 Supervisor Wilma Chan, who called for the motion to pass nearly all of the recommendations. “I wouldn’t have made the recommendations if I would have thought we’d lose all of the (grant) money.”
Rebecca Knight, a technician with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, told supervisors about how her Urban Shield training helped save lives while she was attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas in 2017, in which a gunman killed 58 people.
Knight recalled hearing what sounded like gunshots coming from all around her. She said in that moment she remembered her training to search for exits, listen for the gunman to reload, and to take that time to move.
“I was able to lead my friends to the exits, looking for cover every chance that I could get,” she said. “I have no doubt in my mind that the training and experience I received from Urban Shield saved my life and the life of my friends that day.”
Several supporters of the committee’s recommendations said the training should prepare Californians for disasters, and should include regular citizens, not just first responders.
Oakland resident Helen Duffy said, “We want training. We want training to prepare us for earthquakes, to respond to medically sensitive people.”
Claudine Tong, an Oakland resident and one of several members of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland who showed up to support the recommendations, said: “You can’t shoot or arrest a wildfire.”
Among the recommendations adopted:
• Removing SWAT deployment scenarios from law-enforcement exercises
• Eliminating the requirement that SWAT teams participate in the program
• Emphasizing de-escalation in all exercises
• Prioritizing exercises based on the likelihood and severity of disasters
• Eliminating the competition aspect of exercises
• Changing the name Urban Shield
The four-day event is funded through the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative with a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. About $1.7 million of that is funneled into Urban Shield, while the rest goes toward administrative courses for law enforcement.
UASI officials will review the recommendations on March 14. Should they decide the new program doesn’t fit the guidelines, they may decide to pull funding altogether and award it to a different agency. Supervisors instructed the ad hoc committee, sheriff’s officials and county counsel to meet in the interim, to see if they can work out their disagreements and meet UASI standards.
It’s a task that Sheriff Ahern said is unlikely to succeed.
“The training and exercise that we provide for tens of thousands of first responders and emergency responders is in jeopardy,” he said, adding that he thought supervisors “would be wise enough to not jeopardize $5 million in funding.”
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