Urban Shield's critics successfully push for new recommendations

In recent years, questions have been raised about a law enforcement training exercise known as Urban Shield

It’s an event that prepares emergency personnel for things such as natural disasters, active shooters and terrorist attacks. 

Protesters though have been critical, claiming Urban Shield contributes to the militarization of local law enforcement. Now they’ve successfully pushed for new recommendations. 

Lara Kiswani with Stop Urban Shield Coalition joined us on KTVU’s The Four on Thursday to talk about an Ad-Hoc committee that has been meeting to discuss changes. Many of them include things Stop Urban Shield has been pushing for.

The committee was appointed by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. The full board will hear their recommendations on February 26.

Kiswani said they were tasked with coming up with recommendations for what an emergency preparedness drill could look like in the Bay Area. 

“We applaud them for the great work that they’ve done over the last year in coming up with these over 60 recommendations,” Kiswani said. Urban Shield has even agreed to some of the negotiations. 

Stop Urban Shield has previously said that county leaders took a bold and much needed step last year in ending this "extremely violent and harmful program."

Kiswani said the weapons expo has been a platform for vendors and manufacturers, which prioritizes private interest over the interest of the people. She added that SWAT teams train “year-round” for a variety of reasons. 

However, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly, who also advocates for Urban Shield, said in a live interview following Kiswani’s, that there are not very many full-time SWAT teams in the Bay Area. 

“A lot of our SWAT teams are temporary assignments where they come in and train maybe twice a month,” Kelly said. “A lot of the language that [Stop Urban Shield] use is untrue. A lot of the rhetoric that they give to us is false.” 

Kelly added Urban Shield has an open-door policy. “Anyone that wants to come to Urban Shield is more than welcome to come. People have actually changed their perspective on the training when they show up and see what we’re doing.”   

Urban Shield is open to negotiation on altering the weapons expo, but said a lot of the technology, such as gear that helps firefighters see during battle, are necessary and important. 

“There’s a lot of good technology there that will save lives, that will keep first responders safe. It’s not all about just weapons,” said Kelly. 

Kiswani said watchdog groups are advocating for a more emergency preparedness-focused approach, including both man-made and natural disasters. 

“It’s been proven time and time again that Urban Shield is ineffective in doing so.” Kiswani said the SWAT component adds to the “highly-militarized” imagery of Urban Shield. 

“The tactical portion of Urban Shield is a very small percentage,” Kelly said. “The Urban Shield program itself was granted to us through Homeland Security to specifically focus on training for terrorist events.” 

Kelly stressed that they are open to negotiation on the future of the SWAT drills and that they have formed a sensitivity monitor after complaints that communities of color are targeted in these types of drills.

But Kiswani said even the Urban Shield logo and name are offensive because of its inclusion of the word, "urban". Many say it is racially insenstive. Kelly defended the name as part of the program's long-standing branding since its 2007 inception, conceived by Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern, and considers it to be associated with "success." 

“We have to move away from the logic that the only way to respond to emergencies is through a highly militarized police response. That instead there are actually alternative models across the country that have been implemented here in the Bay Area," Kiswani said.  

She claimed Sheriff Ahern's "right-wing agenda" is at the center of the drill. The program has been held in Alameda County on the weekend of 9/11 ever since its inception. 

Kiswani, an Arab and Muslim woman born and raised in the Bay Area, is opposed to that timing and said it is "propping up the idea that the Arab or Muslim person is the enemy combatant to be neutralized."  

“What we really want," Kiswani said, "is to see that the Alameda County Board of Supervisors take these recommendations seriously and implement them in the coming years.”