Alameda County Board of Supervisors votes to fund Urban Shield another year

Despite plenty of vocal protests from the public, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors has voted to continue funding for Urban Shield for 2018. The board will continue to vote on the first-responder training exercise on a year-by-year basis. 

Funding was on the line during a heated board hearing Tuesday. The board heard public comment for more than three hours from more than 100 speakers before deciding 4-to-1 to approve the program for this fall. 

In years past, Urban Shield has been a heated issue with law enforcement mostly agreeing it is necessary for emergency preparedness, but critics say it is a "war-games" militarization of police departments that often disproportionately and negatively affects vulnerable communities of color and immigrants.

The meeting room was full with two packed additional overflow rooms. The majority of those who commented said Urban Shield is racist and xenophobic. 

The motion that was approved calls for the exercise format in 2019 and future years to focus more on 
training for natural disasters and less on terrorism and on weapons vendors.

Supervisor Keith Carson, who authored the motion, said, "The term 'urban shield' is volatile."

Carson said 2018 "is the last year for Urban Shield going forward" and "Urban Shield as we know it ends after this year."

Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who wanted the exercise to continue in its current format as long as Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern agreed to several reforms, was the lone board member to vote against Carson's motion.

The board's vote means that the county will accept $5.5 million in Urban Shield Area Security Initiative funds so the sheriff can host the training exercise again this September at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton.

Those funds originate from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

There was hissing and booing and plenty of reaction by opponents of Sheriff Ahern as he arrived. Representatives of several groups including Defund OPD, CA Immigrant Youth among others to show their disapproval for what they call a "glorified gun show" and macho law enforcement exercise that frightens the public. 

The Urban Shield training drills have been hosted by Alameda County Sheriffs Office since 2007. KTVU's Frank Somerville participated in the drill in 2016. 

One person who hoped to speak was kicked out by deputies after protesters yelled at a sheriff's commander who spoke in favor of the training. 

"[The] sheriff is resolved and he believes strongly in Urban Shield and I don’t think you have to look any further than whats going on around the country with domestic terrorists, school shootings, and this sheriff wants this region to be the best prepared in the country to respond to incidents like that,” said sheriff's Sgt. Ray Kelly. 

Dr. James Betts, from UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland agreed, “Major incidents require a coordinated integration of agencies. Fire rescue health care workers, hospitals; our neighborhood community presence as well as law enforcement. Urban Shield is an invaluable training event," he said.

But others disagreed. 

“I’m sure that there is a place somewhere in the world for Sheriff Ahern and Urban Shield. But that place is not in Alameda County," said Frank Burton of Hayward. 

At the meeting, Sheriff Ahern said he need to work on "expanding the public trust" when it comes to the training and to do a "better job of marketing Urban Shield." 

"People hope things don't happen. People pray things don't happen, but they do," Ahern said in defense of the training.

When one supervisor characterized Urban Shield as police militarization and "war-games" like, Ahern seemed to take offense, and said, "There are no games about it. We don't use military equipment. We use our police equipment." He added that he's invited the board to attend the training, invited them again for this year and said he was open to suggestions. 

Ahern said after the meeting that he hopes he can work with the board and the community to make changes so the exercise can continue in a similar format in future years.

Ahern said, "2019 is a long way away. We really don't know what 2019 will look like."

Ahern said he already has made many changes to Urban Shield based on community input, such as installing safeguards to make sure that it bans racial profiling, excludes vendors who display derogatory or racist messages and excludes the sale or transfer of assault weapons and firearms.

Sharif Zakout of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center and the Stop Urban Shield Coalition said,

"After years of tireless organizing and raising widespread community opposition to police militarization and racism, we consider this a huge victory for our communities."

Zakout said, "Although we would have liked to see Urban Shield ended immediately, having an end to Urban Shield after this year reflects a significant shift in how the Bay Area can be better prepared for emergencies and disasters in ways that are not based on militarization."

Ahern said 30 law enforcement agencies from the Bay Area participate every year as well as two other agencies selected from other parts of the U.S. and another two agencies that are selected from foreign 

 Some speakers at the meeting accused Ahern of being a racist.

But Carson said, "I don't think the sheriff is a racist. It bothered me to hear that."

After the public comment portion of the meeting concluded, Supervisor Nate Miley said, "Some people's opinions were a bit inflammatory."

Ahern said afterward that the meeting was "very emotional" and speakers brought up subjects Urban Shield has nothing to do with, such as income inequality, homelessness, the presidential election and the recent fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by two Sacramento police officers.

Supervisor Wilma Chan said the relationship between the community and law enforcement goes up and down over time and "the problem is a lot of stuff has happened" in recent years to make the community wary of law enforcement and shows of force.

Urban Shield was launched several years after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The training lasts 48 hours and claims to be based on "real life events." 

Wire services contributed to this report