Protests put spotlight back on military equipment acquired by Bay Area law enforcement

Recent protests across the country have seen heavily armed police officers using armored vehicles and military-style equipment to respond to demonstrators. It's reignited the debate over the militarization of local police forces who are using the gear amid the protests of those speaking out about police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis.

For years, state and local law enforcement agencies have been able to request and acquire surplus military equipment from the U.S. Department of Defense. The program equips local police and sheriff's departments, and even college campus police, with everything from night vision goggles and flashlights to military-style rifles and mine-resistant vehicles.

The surplus requests and transfers are now regularly disclosed online, giving a glimpse into what kinds of resources many agencies have at their disposal.

KTVU reviewed what Bay Area law enforcement agencies have acquired over the past several years. The lists include dozens of tactical robots, rifles, tools and personal protective equipment. Antioch Police received two unmanned tank-style vehicles. And cities like Petaluma, Pinole, Vallejo and Redwood City now have mine-resistant trucks.

But some advocacy groups calling for police reform are upset by these acquisitions, convinced it divides officers from community members.

“There is more of a warrior mentality and that’s reflected in the equipment that we see,” said John Lindsay-Poland with the American Friends Service Committee, an organization which promotes peace with justice and aims to fix social relations.

The problem, he argues, is communities have no voice to say what police can have in their arsenals or when it can be used.

“Without civilian oversight of what police are acquiring, the police have free reign to deploy these weapons and equipment in any way they see fit,” Lindsay-Poland said.

A deeper analysis of the surplus given to Bay Area law enforcement shows in 2019, San Francisco Police and the Sonoma County Sheriff Office acquired the majority of items. Namely night vision viewers, a few scooters, tools and personal protective equipment appeared on the list.

Several police agencies in the Bay Area have protocols and procedures for tactical operations, however, they’re not often publicized or published. Regardless, law enforcement agencies stand firm proactively protecting officers utilizing military gear. 

“I think there’s recognition that we need this equipment,” Frank Straub with the National Police Foundation said. “We have to be hypersensitive as police leaders to how we use the equipment.”

Straub was a former police chief in Washington State and explained officers need to be prepared but also act in a defensive way, opposed to an aggressive way.

“We have to be mindful of what we’re doing as well as the optics of what we’re doing,” he said.

To that end, local governments could step in and propose changes including how, when and where some military surplus can be deployed. In Oakland, for example, a proposal is already before the police commission. 

Ultimately, all agree it will take community conversations to better understand the needs and wants of what policing should look like both in the Bay Area and across the country.

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at or follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @BrooksKTVU