Oakland vice mayor wants to clamp down on police buying militarized equipment

FILE ART- Bearcat 

Oakland's vice mayor and a coalition of community groups are pushing to clamp down on the police department's acquisition of military equipment. 

Sponsored by Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan, the city's Public Safety Committee on Tuesday will vote on adopting an ordinance that would regulate the Oakland Police Department’s acquisition and ongoing use of specified military and militaristic equipment by requiring the department to submit policies, impact reports, and annual reports regarding the equipment to the citizen-led Oakland Police Commission for review.

That commission would then make recommendations to the City Council regarding the acquisition and use of the equipment.

"The public has a right to know about any funding, acquisition, or use of military or militaristic equipment by the City of Oakland, as well as a right to participate in any City decision to fund, acquire or use such equipment," Kaplan wrote in her proposal. "The lack of a public forum to discuss the acquisition of military or militaristic equipment jeopardizes the relationship police have with the community, which can be undermined when law enforcement is seen as an occupying force rather than a public safety service." 

The City Council will only approve a proposed "Controlled Equipment Impact Report" and proposed use policy after first considering the recommendation of the police commission.

If the council does not approve or reject the commission's decision, the commission's decision will become final. 

Oakland police on Monday did not immediately respond for comment, other than to email "we will follow up." 

Oakland police have said in the past that they like militarized equipment, like the Bearcat, because the armor can protect them from bullets in high-risk situations. 

Many community groups, however, say the symbol of the Army-style Bearcat rolling down their streets is traumatizing, especially for people of color, giving them the sense that they are living in "occupied territory." This debate has only intensified after the death of George Floyd. 

The use of the Bearcat came to a head in 2018 when it was used as a perch for police to stand on and kill Joshua Pawlik, who had fallen asleep with a gun in his hand in front of an Oakland home. The big question from critics was: Why was it pulled out in the first place? 

Some of the groups supporting Kaplan's proposal include: Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus, American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, American Friends Service Committee, Anti-Police Terror Project, BAY-Peace: Better Alternatives for Youth Coalition for Police Accountability, Secure Justice, the Council on American Islamic Relations and the CodePink Women for Peace. 

According to Kaplan's ordinance, several studies indicate that police departments in the United States that acquire military-grade equipment are more likely to use violence and are no more successful in reducing crime than those that acquire less such equipment. 

In July 2019, KTVU asked Oakland police to provide information on how often the Bearcat was used and found that the department didn't track such information. 

At the request of KTVU and the American Friends Service Committee, Oakland police provided some more information by February 2020, which showed police deployed the Bearcat about seven times a month - or nearly twice a week - in predominantly East Oakland neighborhoods, and rarely in the affluent hills.

To compare, the KTVU analysis showed that San Francisco police deployed the Bearcat on average less than twice a month during 2019, records from that city show. 

Still, KTVU requested even more information as the data provided by Oakland police did not drill down into the narratives as to why the Bearcat was specifically deployed.

That public records request is still outstanding. 

Kaplan said that this ordinance might lead to cost savings for the city and allow for those funds to be allocated elsewhere. 

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@foxtv.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez