Alameda Co. supervisors to vote on proposed changes to Urban Shield

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By Bay City News Service

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a committee's proposal to make further changes to its "Urban Shield" first-responder training exercise, including ending its SWAT program and even changing its name.

The county's sheriff's office launched Urban Shield in 2007, following the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, which sheriff's officials said showed that law enforcement agencies weren't well prepared for such attacks.

More than 100 agencies and thousands of people, including some from foreign countries, have participated in past conferences, which are held each September.

But the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to end the training exercise in its current format at a meeting last March at which the vast majority of more than 100 speakers alleged that it is militaristic, racist and xenophobic and has a negative impact on communities of color and immigrants.

The board's vote allowed the exercise to continue in its old format for one final time last September but called for its format in 2019 and future years to focus more training for natural disasters and less on 
terrorism and on weapons vendors.

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.

The supervisors' vote last March called for the formation of an ad hoc committee on Urban Shield to offer a new vision and strategic approach for emergency management in the county.

The committee recently approved several recommendations, including eliminating military-type SWAT teams and competition from the exercises, eliminating the weapons expo and vendor show component, getting rid of the "Urban Shield" label and evaluating law enforcement participants' compliance with their departments' use-of-force policies.

"The recommendations that the ad hoc committee approved signal a desire for a decisive departure from the SWAT-centered, highly militarized emergency exercises that the sheriff's department has favored through its Urban Shield model," committee member John Lindsay Poland said in a statement.

Poland said, "The committee's recommendations ultimately reflect what community members, disaster survivors and preparedness experts have voiced for years: that effective disaster preparedness is community-based and centered on de-escalation rather than militarization."

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern opposes the committee's recommendations, writing in a recent letter to Urban Shield supporters, "We want you to know this highly recognized and necessary training is in danger of being drastically reduced or eliminated in its current form."

Urging the program's supporters to attend the Board of Supervisors meeting, Ahern said, "Opponent activism against Urban Shield is at an all-time high. This is very concerning because a great deal of misinformation has been spread."

Ahern said, "The future of Urban Shield is uncertain. First responders know the elimination or reduction of this program will make our region much less safe in responding to terror attacks, natural disasters, 
mass casualties and other critical incidents."

Ahern wrote that Urban Shield training "has trained tens of thousands of first responders who have later responded to several tragedies and critical events, including the Boston bombing, the Las Vegas shooting, the Orlando nightclub shooting and California wildfires. Many have credited their Urban Shield training for being prepared."

The Board of Supervisors meeting is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday on the fifth floor of the Alameda County Administration Building at 1221 Oak St. in Oakland. Ahern estimated that the committee's recommendations will be presented at about 10:45 a.m.