Under a state law that takes effect May 1, 2022, law enforcement must follow new rules for using military equipment, like the Redding Police Department’s $300,000 Lenco Bearcat “Rescue” Vehicle.
A brief community forum was held Thursday to provide information and answer questions about California Assembly Bill 481 and how it impacts the Redding Police Department(RPD). The bill was signed into law by Governor Newsom in September of 2021 and requires the City Council to decide whether current police policies for military equipment adequately protect civil rights. They’re expected to do so on April 5th.
As currently written, RPD’s draft military equipment use policy does not yet appear to meet the requirements of AB 481 because it lacks meaningful specifics about how and when the equipment may be used.
AB 481 was authored by then-Assemblyman David Chiu, a Democrat who has since been appointed city attorney of San Francisco, in response to the threat that military equipment can pose to peaceful protestors. “Our streets in California are not war zones,” Chiu said in a statement when the bill was released, “Law enforcement are our community partners in public safety, and the weapons and equipment they use should reflect that reality.”
Referencing anti-police brutality protests that occurred across California and the nation in 2020, Chiu said, “If we learned anything from last summer’s protests, it is that communities should have a say in how they are policed. This policy gives residents a voice.”
According to AB 481, the deployment of military equipment in civilian communities is known to adversely impact the public’s safety and welfare by increasing the risk of civilian deaths and heightening threats to community members’ civil rights and their physical and psychological well-being.
Responding to questions at a small community forum on Thursday, RPD’s Captain Brian Barner countered that narrative, saying that the use of military equipment such as the city’s armored vehicle increases the safety of both the police and civilians.
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Community Input into Redding’s Military Equipment Use Policy
In order to reduce the risk of civil rights violations, AB 481 requires that communities have opportunities to contribute to decisions about whether local police continue to purchase military equipment and how they use it.
The first such opportunity, a meeting held Thursday at Redding City Hall’s community room, was sparsely attended, with more RPD staff present than the approximately five community members who were there. No media representatives other than Shasta Scout attended.
That may be because the meeting was not thoroughly promoted to the public. Melanie Schaffer, Barner’s Executive Assistant, said the meeting was publicized on the RPD Facebook page as well as on posted flyers.
Barner used the forum to share the general purpose of AB 481 and the bill’s definition of military equipment. He also referenced the department’s new draft military equipment use policy and answered questions. Telling the assembled group that RPD is lucky to have a community that trusts and supports the police, Barner emphasizing that police accountability is not a significant concern in the Northstate.
Asked by phone after the meeting whether the community forum met AB 481’s intent for community input into policies, Captain Barner said yes, suggesting that “anybody at the meeting could have brought it up” if they had concerns.
RPD’s Armored “Rescue” Vehicle
The city’s current military equipment includes an armored vehicle, a mobile command vehicle, and drones among other items.
RPD announced their purchase of their armored vehicle, the “Lenco Bearcat Rescue Vehicle,” on February 16, 2021, calling it “an extremely valuable addition to our fleet allowing us to travel into dangerous areas to rescue injured civilians and emergency personnel.”
The Bearcat is a 4×4 wheeled armored response and rescue vehicle used by special weapons and tactics (SWAT) units, special rescue teams (SRT), and military and police forces in tactical roles. The acronym Bearcat stands for “ballistic engineered armored response counter attack truck.”
Redding’s $300,000 vehicle was paid for with the city’s tourism funds after the Redding City Council agreed to a transfer of Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) funds from the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association, which operated the Redding Convention Visitors Bureau at the time, to fund the vehicle.
Laurie Baker, speaking as the Executive Director of the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association, told Shasta Scout in 2021 that the Redding Tourism and Marketing Group felt the fund use had “worked out fine for all entities,” saying that the armored vehicle would make the city “a safer place for residents and visitors alike.”
Barner made the same point during Thursday’s community forum, emphasizing that the armored vehicle promotes safety during dangerous incidents that put the police or civilians at risk. Referring to the vehicle as “industry standard” equipment for police, he said the Bearcat has been deployed 46 times, or an average of four times a month, since the city acquired it just over a year ago, including two times in the last week.
In April 2021, Shasta Scout submitted questions and public records requests about the vehicle to RPD. At the time, the department had been using the vehicle for two months, with multiple deployments, but confirmed there was not yet a policy in place for its use.
Writing to Shasta Scout in April of 2021, RPD Police Services Supervisor Emily Egger said that the Bearcat was purchased to replace the department’s 16-year-old armored vehicle, but that there was no other documentation for why the purchase was needed. Data about the use of the city’s previous armored vehicle was not available, she said, because it was never tracked.
Under AB 481, RPD will be required to track the use of the Bearcat, as well as complaints or concerns about their military equipment, violations of their military equipment use policy, and the total annual cost of the military equipment they own.
While the Redding City Council approved the purchase of the armored vehicle, other communities have rejected police requests for similar vehicles, citing lack of evidence that the vehicles increase public safety and concerns that limited funding should be used for more community-oriented programs.
Military Equipment Use Policy and Civil Rights
Police use of armored vehicles creates the potential for civil rights violations. Reporting about the need for AB 481, Fox-affiliate KTVU said that police had used military vehicles, including Lenco Bearcats, to disperse peaceful protestors in Walnut Creek and Sacramento during June 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. In Redding, police armed in riot gear dispersed a local crowd during those June protests. They had not yet purchased their new armored vehicle.
As currently written, RPD’s draft use of military equipment policy does not provide specifics about when and how military equipment can be used. Captain Barner said that’s because those specifics are addressed within the individual policies for each piece of equipment. But he also confirmed that those individual policies with specifics on use, will not be submitted to the Council for approval, or provided to the community for input into their structure or language. The Department’s policies were written by Lexipol, Barner said, a private organization which, writes policy for almost all law enforcement agencies statewide.
Since the intent of AB 481 is to ensure that local communities have input into local law enforcement policies about military equipment, it’s unclear how submitting a general policy without specifics will meet the intent of the bill.
Drones are also known to present concerns about civil rights violations and intimidation against protestors. During the community forum, in response to a question from Shasta Scout, RPD’s Barner said that police drones have been used to “collect intelligence” during local protests, such as the anti-police-brutality protest held outside the Shasta County courthouse in June of 2020. Current RPD policy for drones does not meaningfully articulate when the need for such intelligence outweighs concerns about community intimidation and privacy.
Should the Redding City Council approve an RPD military equipment use policy in April, they will also need to approve ongoing annual reports on RPD’s military equipment use. Data from the department’s BlueTeam software, which already tracks both RPD’s use of force incidents and military equipment deployments, will be utilized to provide annual reports to the Council, Barner said.
If the council votes down RPD’s military equipment, Barner said, items such as the city’s armored tank will be resold to recoup costs.
The community will have an opportunity to provide feedback on RPD’s military equipment use policies when they go before the Council for approval, tentatively scheduled for April 5.
Information about how RPD is working to come into compliance with AB 481 can be found here and a digest of AB 481 can be found here. RPD’s new military equipment use policy can be found here. Other RPD policies can be found here, including those for their armored vehicle and UAVs. Complaints or comments about RPD’s funding, acquisition or use of military equipment can be submitted here.
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