OAKLAND, Calif. (BCN/KTVU) - Alameda County's controversial Urban Shield emergency training program for law enforcement is coming to an end.
A group that distributes federal grant money for emergency training programs voted on Thursday to shift nearly $5 million away from Alameda County in the wake of a vote by its Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Sheriff Gregory Ahern said.
The county board voted 3-2 on Tuesday to re-affirm its decision two weeks ago to make sweeping changes to the sheriff's controversial "Urban Shield" law enforcement training program, which critics allege is overly militaristic.
Ahern warned the board on Tuesday and two weeks ago that the changes likely would cause the county to lose most of the $5.5 million it was slated to receive from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for the program.
Previously in a phone interview, Ahern said his fears were realized at a meeting in Dublin on Thursday of the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), which is made up of 12 Northern California counties.
Ahern said the group's board voted only to award Alameda County $800,000 for various emergency management programs and reallocate $4.7 million to other Bay Area counties for emergency training.
Ahern said, "I'm heartbroken" because he started Urban Shield in 2007 to train his agency and other law enforcement agencies in responding to emergencies and acts of terrorism.
He said that's because the county's agreement with federal authorities requires the teaching of skills to fight terrorism, including SWAT training.
Ahern said, "This terrible action (the vote by the Board of Supervisors) puts our community at risk because the training program keeps us up to date" on emergency equipment and training.
In its votes two weeks ago and on Tuesday, the board approved most of the 63 recommendations made by an ad hoc committee it appointed a year ago to review Urban Shield.
In a live televised interview with KTVU on Friday, KTVU anchor Alex Savidge pointed to the deadly mass shootings at two mosques in New Zealand, saying that these are the types of attacks Ahern would argue Urban Shield was preparing law enforcement for.
“We’ve trained a number of times at different [houses] of worship throughout the greater Bay Area. We’ve trained a number of times over the years for that exact scenario," Ahern said.
He also told KTVU he warned the board at least 15 times about their decision jeopardizing the federal funds.
Critical Resistance, a grassroots organization with a chapter in Oakland, reached out to KTVU after the televised interview aired. They said Sheriff Ahern has not provided specific evidence of how the funding guidelines contradict with the adopted recommendations, although they've repeatedly asked.
They said a civil rights attorney on the 2017 Urban Shield Task Force submitted a memo to each of the Supervisors, detailing ways the recommendations are in line with funding guidelines and that they actually bring the County in "stronger compliance" with the guidelines.
"The Sheriff's Offices had multiple staff at each of the meetings and were given ample time to ask questions, respond and provide input," Critical Resistance, part of the Stop Urban Shield coalition, countered. "The Sheriff first raised his baseless concerns on February 22, 2019 via a letter just four days before the Board of Supervisors were set to vote on the recommendations. The Ad Hoc Committee began discussing these recommendations on November 19, 2018." The group said Ahern waited until the 11th hour to sound the alarm.
Critics say Urban Shield, which has been held over four days every fall and attracted law enforcement agencies from across the country and the world, should focus more on training for earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Other criticisms of Urban Shield were that it led to militarization of police and that its tactics were oppressive to communities of color. Ahern told KTVU he did not feel those criticisms were valid, adding: "The ad hoc committee wasn't even able to come up with a definition of militarization of law enforcement."
Critical Resistance tweeted that it was "disgusting" and exploitative for Ahern to point to the Christchurch, NZ mosque attacks and that he was simply trying to justify the program they condemned as Islamaphobic for its depictions of Arabs and Muslims as threats.
The group's tweet included examples of what they considered racism on the part of Urban Shield. In 2017, the far-right extremist group the Oath Keepers had an information tent at the fair. They also pointed to "dark-skinned enemies" often portrayed in their training videos as threats, something Arab Resource and Organizing Center had also been vocal about in their criticisms over the years. They previously said Urban Shield was actively "waging war on communities of color." Critical Resistance called those depictions xenophobic.
"I find it incredibly shameful that the Sheriff would exploit a tragedy where an Islamophobic gunman killed at least 49 Muslims at places of worship in order to gain points for Urban Shield," Mohamed Shehk with Critical Resistance wrote.
Among the approved changes are eliminating military-type SWAT teams and competition from the annual training 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.
Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said the vote by the UASI board effectively ends Urban Shield.
KTVU's Andre Torrez contributed to this report. Bay City News service contributed to this report.