Grand jury criticizes supes' handling of Urban Shield changes

FILE ART - Urban Shield

An Alameda County grand jury issued a report on Monday strongly criticizing the county Board of Supervisors for the way it handled the approval process of sweeping changes to the sheriff's controversial "Urban Shield" law enforcement training program.

The grand jury said in its annual report that the board's "mismanagement of the review process" caused the group that distributes federal grant money for emergency training programs to shift nearly $5 
million in U.S. Department of Homeland Security funds away from Alameda County.

The panel said the result is "the loss of essential regional emergency preparedness training, leaving county residents less safe."

The sheriff's office started Urban Shield in 2007 because it believed the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, showed law enforcement agencies weren't well prepared for such attacks.

More than 100 agencies and thousands of people, including some from foreign countries, participated in past training programs, which were 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 weapons vendors.

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

But the grand jury report said, "The Board of Supervisors failed to provide clear and complete guidelines to the ad hoc committee, particularly in regard to making recommendations that are consistent with grant guidelines."

The panel said the sheriff's office repeatedly warned the committee that its recommendations for changing Urban Shield were inconsistent with the grant guidelines of the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), which require the teaching of skills to fight terrorism, including SWAT training.

The grand jury also said "almost all the appointed committee members held pre-established and intractable opinions about Urban Shield, making objective analysis difficult to impossible."

In addition, the panel alleged that the Board of Supervisors accepted the committee's recommendations "without the benefit of meaningful county staff review and county administrative officer approval."

The grand jury said, "Alameda County thus lost millions in federal funds, critical to the continued training of our first responders in increasingly volatile times."

In votes at meetings on Feb. 27 and March 12, supervisors approved most of the committee's 63 recommendations for changing Urban Shield.

Among those 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.

In response to the board's actions, UASI's board, comprised of representatives from 12 Northern California counties, voted on March 14 to shift the nearly $5 million in federal funding away from Alameda County.