The Guardian reports:
Thirteen-year old Maria Calvillo bursts into tears as she tells the story of the day in November when Oakland Swat team officers barged into her family’s home, pointed a rifle at her, and searched her family, including her three-month-old sister who was wrapped in a baby blanket.
“The police had a tank in front of our house, an actual tank. I thought I was in a movie … It made me angry that they were searching my baby sister,” said Calvillo who shared her story at the Stop Urban Shield Coalition protest in downtown Oakland, California, on Friday.
She was part of more than 150 protesters in front of the Alameda County sheriff’s office calling for an end to the Urban Shield Expo and Conference, a controversial law enforcement training and weapons expo held in Alameda County every year since 2008, where companies that make military-style weaponry market their products to local police and fire departments.
The expo and conference, which started on Friday – the 14th anniversary of 9/11 – at the Alameda County Fairgrounds and runs for four days, has also become well known for extensive Swat team trainings.
Organizers say that Urban Shield is the largest tactical exercise in the world and brings together more than 50 local, national and international law enforcement agencies. Hands-on trainings in fire, bomb squad, emergency medical services, and anti-terrorism scenarios are planned for 58 sites in five northern California counties.
Most Bay Area law enforcement agencies are attending Urban Shield along with some from other states including Texas and Florida. This year a team from South Korea is taking part in the exercises, and teams from 10 countries including Jordan, Uruguay, Colombia, Thailand and China are observing the trainings.
In previous years, Urban Shield was held in Oakland but after a series of protests and continued lobbying by activists, the expo was moved to Pleasanton, a city about 30 miles east of Oakland. Mohamed Shehk, spokesperson for the Stop Urban Shield Coalition, a group of 15 Bay Area and national organizations working to pressure the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to stop holding the Urban Shield Expo and Conference, says the goal for the coalition is to stop Urban Shield altogether.
“We were not kicked out of Oakland. It was just that the Marriott told us that they didn’t have room for us this year,” said JD Nelson, spokesperson for the Alameda County sheriff’s department and Urban Shield.
Nelson, who has been with the sheriff’s office since 1986, says he remembers when local police or sheriff officers didn’t wear bulletproof vests, but that times are different now.
“It is a shame that it’s come to this, but you need proper equipment in this day and age,” said Nelson.
He says that Urban Shield trainings have proven to be helpful in real situations.
“The Boston Police commissioner has said that their teams who were trained at Urban shield trainings were instrumental in quickly responding to the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks,” said Nelson referring to the April 2013 attacks where three people were killed and more than 260 others were injured.
But opponents of the Urban Shield conference say the environment there pushes the thinking that police are always under attack and that the latest military-style training and weaponry will keep them safe.
Shehk says that Urban Shield is marketed as a public safety and emergency preparedness training program for disasters and terrorist scenarios, but that the weaponry being sold to local police forces and the trainings in new “militarized” methods only creates bigger divisions between the public and local police forces. “Especially in black and brown communities like Oakland,” he said.
Inside the Urban Shield expo, representatives of companies like FLIR Systems are selling their latest models of thermal and night vision cameras and rifle scopes. The devices let users see in pitch black environments and detect body heat.
Guy Blocker, a manager for FLIR’s law enforcement sales division says their products are getting the attention of police departments and that the S135 night vision scope, which mounts onto sniper rifles, semi-automatic guns or other types of weapons is the most popular with law enforcement right now.
Blocker’s table was one of the busiest at the expo. He says the S135 sells for $12,000 and they have sold “several thousand” to law enforcement.
“Any information we can get helps us in our operations like the one that detects motion through the wall,” said Edward Rodgers, a police officer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is referring to a radar device which is placed on the outside wall of a building and can detect the layout of the room, whether people are inside and their locations.
Rodgers says that the radar device and others he has seen at the expo would help him and his other Swat team colleagues do their jobs better and stay safe in the process.
Vendors selling armored vehicles, drones, and aerial surveillance technologies were also at the Urban Shield expo. One drone maker, AirCover Integrated Solutions, now offers local law enforcement agencies a package for $65,000 that includes a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) registered drone, training for the agency’s drone operator and assistance to get the operator licensed with the FAA.
“If the tools are used properly and public safety officials don’t abuse them, then it benefits everyone,” said Garry Bowling, a representative for AirCover.
Urban Shield is funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), a $587m program designed to enhance regional preparedness and capabilities in 28 of the highest-risk, highest-threat, highest-density urban areas in the US.
Ali Issa, a field organizer for the New York-based anti-war advocacy group War Resisters League, says that Bay Area law enforcement agencies should be using the Urban Shield funds to create stronger ties with their communities.
“If these trainings are important to the law enforcement agencies then they should use local funds, which need to be approved by city councils, to prioritize and pay for them,” said Issa.
He says using DHS funds allows the law enforcement agencies to sidestep local processes that may scrutinize the content of the trainings and the companies who take part in the events.
“There is private interest involved in shaping the content of the trainings because the trainings are tied to products using the latest military technologies,” said Issa.
He says that the increasing use of Swat teams, military grade weaponry and tanks for everyday policing of communities is backfiring and creating more resentment and anger towards law enforcement.
Calvillo, who lives in West Oakland with pockets of poor African American and Hispanic communities and high crime, expressed fear of police when talking about the Swat raid at her house.
Oakland police spokeswoman Johnna Watson says officers understand that law enforcement activities have an impact on children like Calvillo and that tactical teams “do everything they can to not point a gun at a child”.
But Issa questioned: “If the ultimate goal is to always protect themselves than what is police’s role in society? There is a clear disconnect between what people are facing socially and the response by the police.”
By Halima Kazem in Alameda County