Alameda Co. supes re-affirm big changes to Urban Shield training program

FILE ART - Urban Shield

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on Tuesday to re-affirm its decision of two weeks ago to make sweeping changes to the controversial "Urban Shield" law enforcement training program.

In approving the changes at the end of an emotional five-hour hearing the board majority disregarded Sheriff Gregory Ahern's warning that the changes likely will cause the county to lose the $5.5 million it was slated to receive from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for the program.

Ahern said in his opinion the board's vote to eliminate military-type SWAT teams and competition from the annual training exercises violates the Department of Homeland Security's requirement that funding be used for such exercises.

Ahern said he believes that when the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative, which administers the grants for the Department of Homeland Security, meets on Thursday it won't agree with the changes and "that funding will go away."

He said, "The $5.5 million would have to be reallocated and two other agencies (local governments) are working to get access to that money."

The sheriff's office started Urban Shield in 2007 because it believed the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, 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 critics, including the Stop Urban Shield Coalition, have alleged that the training program is militaristic, racist and xenophobic and has a negative impact on communities of color and immigrants.

A 4-1 Board of Supervisors majority agreed with many of the critics' complaints at a meeting in March 2018 when it voted to allow 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 on training for natural disasters and less on terrorism and on weapons vendors.

The board's March 2018 vote called for forming an ad hoc committee on Urban Shield to offer a new vision and strategic approach for emergency management in the county.

The committee came up with 63 recommendations after a long series of community meetings and the Board of Supervisors voted on Feb. 26 to approve most of them.

Among the approved changes are eliminating military-type SWAT teams and competition from the annual exercises, eliminating its 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.

Ahern met with the ad-hoc committee last week in an attempt to resolve his disagreement with some of its recommendations and the two sides agreed on some matters, but continued to disagree about others.

The Board of Supervisors voted on the recommendations a second time on Tuesday because the committee asked it to re-affirm its support of the changes that were approved.

Board of Supervisors President Richard Valle indicated toward the end of the lengthy meeting that he was disappointed the board appeared to be divided on the recommended changes.

He said, "I want to achieve a victory for everyone and I don't want to divide the board."

Valle said, "I'm very cautious about my vote" and then asked Alameda County Counsel Donna Ziegler for permission to take a five-minute break to eat chocolate.

After the break Valle joined Supervisors Wilma Chan and Keith Carson in approving the changes, with Supervisors Nate Miley and Scott Haggerty voting against them.

"We applaud the Board of Supervisors for keeping their promises and commitments to our communities," Amber Akemi Piatt, director of the Health Instead of Punishment Program at Human Impact Partners, said in a statement.

Piatt said, "Their vote builds a culture of preparedness for Alameda County and sets us up to become a more inclusive, resilient, and safe region."

The Stop Urban Shield Coalition said in a statement that it is "looking forward to supporting county decision-makers on implementing the recommendation and developing new, more expansive emergency preparedness programs that can serve as a model nationally."