ALAMEDA COUNTY, Calif. (KTVU) - Tracy Rosenberg jumped up and down holding her protest sign outside the Alameda County Fairgrounds gate in Pleasanton last year. “I was not arrested,” she said.
Rosenberg, executive director at communications advocacy group, Media Alliance, admits to protesting the annual “Urban Shield” law enforcement disaster training event in 2016. This year was her first time actually attending the expo, although she had previously read several accounts from journalists who had documented Urban Shield.
She was invited as a guest to attend last weekend, but was only able to make it on Friday before the 48-hour drills.
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors put together a task force in January after voting unanimously to continue their support of the training exercise, but as a condition, a panel of community members whose purpose was to address concerns over the event, was comprised.
Urban Shield was launched several years after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which sheriff's officials said showed that law enforcement agencies weren't well prepared for such attacks. A main contributor to the training is Execushield, a private security firm based in San Francisco that was founded, not ironically, on 9/11 2001. Their website displays the slogan, "Peace through security".
“As an activist I’ve been concerned with over policing, police militarization and online surveillance. I had a reputation as someone who had concerns," Rosenberg said in a phone interview this week.
“We’re sort of funneling a large amount of Homeland Security money with taxes on emergency training in the region. Millions of dollars are coming in to support this event. The question is: Are we preparing police for situations they encounter on a daily basis?”
Sheriff's officials say the purpose of the conference is to train law enforcement officers, firefighters and paramedics on how to respond to natural disasters as well as man-made disasters such as explosions and mass shootings.
“We’re more likely to face a break on the Hayward Fault than a repeat of the [9/11] terrorist attacks. I think the earthquake is what we’re not prepared for. This was more of a fictitious narrative sucking our money and resources. Let’s talk about resiliency; changing weather conditions, mental illness and homelessness. Those are things that are in front of us every day.”
John Lindsay-Poland, a human rights researcher and advocate with the Stop Urban Shield coalition, was one of 11 appointees from various agencies on the supervisors' task force.
He cited a 2014 FBI Active Shooter study that found 60 percent of incidents end before police arrive.
"The most deadly incident in the Bay Area in last few years was [the] Ghost Ship [Fire]. 36 died, [it] could have been prevented by fire inspection. Instead Urban Shield, had a Friday seminar. It was about how the sheriff had a great response," he said over the phone.
"The vendor show is a gun show. The competition is super militarized," he added. Unlike Rosenberg, Lindsay-Poland actually attended the training component and described how there were 36 scenarios and that only four of them rewarded de-escalation tactics. "It’s killing practice."
"It’s very visceral. There’s the structure, the discourse, the energy. All of that is totally a wargame. They call the scenario 'training', but it’s really competition. What we saw was like war."
Alameda County Sheriff’s Department have said in the past that first responders have been adopting military equipment for the last 100 years, such as bulletproof vests. Sgt. J.D. Nelson had once been quoted as saying, "It's all military technology," referring to police tactical gear.
Yet, Rosenberg described in a Facebook post from the event that SWAT teams travel in packs, as they ogle “significant” assault weapons, heavily advertised as “military grade”.
In fact, it was like shopping, she said, with sales pitches from the vendors. Even products like cleanser and backpacks were touted as being “military tested” or “produced for the military”. Words like “Better, stronger, tougher” helped support the “better than what the bad guys have, ‘us versus them’ aspect.”
Rosenberg admits direct sales have been constrained this year, whereas in the past, you could order direct from vendors.
With her badge identifying her as a “guest”, she wasn’t sure if she was being treated the same as a law-enforcement representative.
Meanwhile, she observed the rank-and-file were interested more in technologically-advanced wares such as surveillance drones, facial recognition technology and pole cameras.
“I certainly had preconceived notions,” she said.
What she didn’t see was the racist and violent t-shirts she had expected, but only because she suspected that the pressure was on from outsiders.
Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern said there was “evil out there” and in the on-screen, international terrorist situations, people of “Middle-Eastern descent” are largely portrayed. A potential truck bomber is typically Muslim in these types of exercises. “It’s a war at home that isn’t actually a war that’s here,” she said.
County board members said they believe Sheriff Ahern has put in adequate safeguards to make sure that the training program bans racial profiling, excludes vendors who display derogatory or racist messages and excludes the sale or transfer of assault weapons and firearms.
In reference to a previous story KTVU had done on Urban Shield training where Frank Somerville partook in the exercise, she said it was “aping” or copying the military.
“The language used was ‘embedded in Urban Shield’. What you’re being embedded in, is a practice drill, role play. It’s a way of having the audience respond," she said.
“Do we want a war on San Rafael or Fremont? Is that the type of police change that we need to see? We want de-escalation and non-violence. We have a problem here of people getting gunned down. Are we contributing to those numbers?" she added.
A spokesperson for Alameda County Sheriff's Dept. had said before that first responders from Boston were grateful for the training they received, which prepared them to respond to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
More than 100 law enforcement agencies and thousands of people, including some from foreign countries, have participated in past Urban Shield conferences.