Updated: Mar 8
After the Alameda County Board of Supervisors stonewalled then-Sheriff Gregory Ahern’s requests to acquire two unmanned drones for his agency amid public outrage, the county’s top cop quietly dipped into his own $236 million annual budget and purchased them anyway. Ahern scooped up a pair of AirCover Integrated Solutions’ QuadRotor QR425s for $97,000, using a federal Homeland Security grant and county taxpayer money — almost two years after community members testified for hours against the acquisition. In the process, his office in 2014 became the first California law enforcement agency to publicly acquire a sophisticated surveillance drone. “There’s nothing secret about what we’ve done,” Ahern told reporters at the time. “This is how our department acquires equipment on a regular basis.” It’s not the only one.
In the two decades since 9/11 intensified the nation’s focus on national security, police departments and sheriff’s offices across the Bay Area have spent tens of millions of dollars to acquire troves of military-grade equipment, stockpiling armories with tactical vehicles, chemical agents, unmanned robots, surplus firearms, ammunition and more.
Remarkably, it wasn’t until Assembly Bill 481 became law in 2022 that every California policing agency was required to publicly report their once-murky inventories, adopt policies for deployment, and ask elected officials for explicit permission before obtaining any new hardware. Agencies are also required to report annually how they used their stockpiles over the past year, with the first of those reports due in May.
In advance of those reports, the Bay Area News Group surveyed local police agencies to get a snapshot of a policing approach that the Legislature found “adversely impacts the public’s safety and welfare, including increased risk of civilian deaths, significant risks to civil rights, civil liberties, and physical and psychological well-being, and incurment of significant financial costs.”
“We know that the purpose of having military weaponry is not to keep us safe,” said James Burch, with Oakland’s Anti Police-Terror Project, an activist organization that works to reduce community reliance on local law enforcement agencies. “It’s to terrorize our communities and to increase capacity for surveillance and control.”
But across the Bay Area, many police contend the equipment — albeit expensive — is vital to ensuring the highest levels of public safety in a timely manner.
For us, this is like an insurance policy,” said Campbell Police Department Capt. Dan Livingston, who oversaw the department’s implementation of state reporting requirements. “If a person passes away before we can get to them, how much would that family have paid for an armored rescue vehicle that day?”
The hardware has flowed into the hands of local law enforcement by way of the U.S. military through grant programs and purchases directly from the commercial market. A long fight to demilitarize police in the Bay Area has led to some change locally, with activists capitalizing on conflicting data about the cost and usefulness of tactical gear to keep residents safe.
Still, elected officials in Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties have largely allowed police to keep — and add to — vast armories of militarized equipment in Oakland, San Jose, Richmond, Gilroy and many places in between. BANG’s analysis shows that local departments own at least 30 armored vehicles and 330 unmanned aerial drones.
Some weaponry is distributed to police free of charge, including the surplus military equipment transferred to local law enforcement as grants through the U.S. Department of Defense, but many other items are bought commercially using taxpayer dollars or accepted as gifts from nonprofit and community organizations.
The acquisitions can include nonlethal, military-grade items — from binoculars to coffee makers — but more often police target equipment that was originally designed for convoys during operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, and can be redeployed to rescue hostages, analyze crime scenes and record live feeds of protests.
By May 2022, the Oakland Police Department had acquired eight unmanned surveillance drones, five robots, four command-and-control vehicles and two mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, including a LENCO Ballistic Engineered Armored Resistance Counter Attack Truck — better known as a BearCat.
The $323,726 BearCat was purchased with a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant.
Further south, the police department in suburban Campbell obtained its own custom-built BearCat in July, joining one robot, eight unmanned aerial drones and a mobile emergency operations center. It cost the police department $303,752, which will be paid off over five years from the city’s Capital Improvement Plan budget.
The purpose of such military-grade equipment in a city of 43,000 residents, where use-of-force was reported in less than 1% of the 31,666 police service calls in 2021, is to keep officers safe, said Livingston, who described the BearCat as a buffed-out Ford F-550 Super Duty truck.
“I think people think it might be an assault vehicle or something like that,” Livingston said. “It’s not — it’s really just a safe workplace for us if we have to rescue somebody and provide first aid so that we can assure that we’re not going to get hit by any potential gunfire.”
According to Livingston, the BearCat has been deployed just once since July, to assist the Gilroy/Morgan Hill SWAT team trying to apprehend a homicide suspect.
At the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, it took Lt. Miguel Campos eight months to track down, compile and catalog all of the office’s military-grade gear to meet the state’s new requirements — including the 170 drones acquired since 2014. But he said that painstakingly detailed work was worth it if it helped residents have healthy, level-headed conversations about police equipment.
“We’re not hesitant to say and justify everything we have,” Campos said. “Obviously, there’ll be people that have difference of opinions, and that’s the conversation that we have, but we’re not trying to hide anything.”
While even police reform advocates have acknowledged that these kinds of high-caliber, high-tech equipment may be necessary to respond to violent crimes and dangerous situations, law enforcement personnel have long known that pushback from the public, press and politicians is one of the biggest barriers to obtaining militarized equipment.
But with ample resources available for their purchase — the ACLU indicates the Pentagon’s federal 1033 program had helped more than 10,000 jurisdictions acquire upward of $7 billion of military equipment — manufacturers and consultants are eager to help make the case.
With the click of a mouse, police can find dozens of free eBooks and whitepapers online that explain how to fund and justify acquisitions of military-grade equipment to the public — unlocked by filling out forms with detailed contact information.
In 2016, the Police1 blog — run by Lexipol, a company that trains and crafts use-of-force policies for thousands of law enforcement agencies — posted tips about persistence, positive messaging and police-friendly candidates to help police leaders successfully acquire armored vehicles in the face of public opposition.
Mike Katz-Lacabe, founder of the Center for Human Rights and Privacy, said many departments find the equipment tough to resist. While cities like San Leandro might rationalize their BearCat as a regional asset for neighboring agencies to use, he said, one or two of those vehicles are often already in most law enforcement agencies’ stockpiles. “To overgeneralize here, it seems that once a police department gets a new piece of equipment, all the other police departments go, ‘We need to have one of those, too,’” Katz-Lacabe said. But former Assemblymember David Chiu, D-San Francisco, who authored AB 481, hopes the mindset is changing. He said the main goal of his legislation was to rebuild community trust in local law enforcement by increasing transparency, oversight and, eventually, accountability about how public dollars are being used. The nation’s largest state, progressive California has also led the nation in procuring military weaponry, despite a host of studies that have shown a link between the size of departments’ armories and their rate of police shootings, Chiu said. Following the protests that erupted after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, more people understood the impact of militarized equipment after it was unleashed on their own neighbors, he said. “When communities saw tear gas launched from military grenade launchers and rubber bullets shot from behind armored vehicles at peaceful protesters, it really crystallized the trust challenges,” Chiu said. “Our streets are not war zones, and our citizens should not be considered enemy combatants. Law enforcement should be viewed as our partners in public safety — they’re not military generals, so the weapons and equipment they carry should reflect that reality.” One of the first signs of a shift in attitudes toward police militarization in the Bay Area came when the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted in 2018 to discontinue Urban Shield, a program former Sheriff Ahern started when he was elected to office in 2007. Framed as disaster response preparedness, the globally known SWAT training program and weapons expo in Oakland — funded by Homeland Security — attracted groups like the Oath Keepers and featured vendors promoting violent, racist slogans. Today, AB 481 reports show that Alameda County Sheriff’s Office is in the process of disposing of its two .50-caliber Browning machine guns, which use 5-inch ammunition shells designed to knock down helicopters and penetrate armor with power that has been compared to “a hot knife through butter.” One of the key strategies to demilitarizing the police is highlighting the ineffectiveness of many of these tools that police claim are lifesaving resources, said Burch of the Anti Police-Terror Project. “While the police have an explanation for why they have these things, they don’t have data supporting their use,” Burch said. “When they’re explaining to the public why they need this equipment, they’ll state a public emergency or a natural disaster, but when you look at what they’re attempting to use them for, it’s for felony warrant enforcement or other issues that are directly related to law enforcement. “That disconnect and their inability to be straight up about what they want these tools for is telling.”
Katie Lauer | Berkeley,