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Calif. PD will soon need council approval to buy, use military equipment

A new state law requires police agencies to establish policies about the use of such equipment

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By Judith Prieve
Bay Area News Group

PITTSBURG, Calif. — Pittsburg will soon have new rules for the buying, acquiring and using military equipment for its police department.

The City Council on Tuesday approved an ordinance establishing a military equipment use policy that requires the police department to get approval from the council before acquiring or purchasing such equipment. The ordinance passed unanimously, with council members Merl Craft and Shanelle Scales-Preston absent.

The new ordinance, which will return for adoption in two weeks, stems from Assembly Bill 481, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed on Sept. 30, 2021, along with six other police reform laws. The bill requires law enforcement agencies to establish policies and obtain approvals from their governing bodies for military equipment.

Authored by Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, AB 481 aims to address the concerns about transparency, accountability and oversight surrounding law enforcement’s acquisition and use of military equipment.

Under the ordinance, Pittsburg police will be able to continue to use the military equipment it already owns.

The term “military equipment,” as used in the bill, however, does not necessarily refer to equipment the military uses. “Military equipment” includes such items as unmanned aerial or ground vehicles, armored vehicles, command and control vehicles, 40mm kinetic energy launchers, chemical munitions and diversionary devices, according to the staff report.

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Pittsburg Police Capt. Patrick Wentz said the police department does not have military surplus equipment but has commercially purchased equipment in six of the 15 military equipment categories outlined in the bill. Most of that equipment is used during critical incidents, he said.

Pittsburg’s police department currently has nine unmanned aerial vehicles, a BATT armored transport, two command control center vehicles, specialized firearms and ammunition, tear gas and flashbang diversionary devices.

Some of these items are used by police departments, including Pittsburg, and are considered “best practices” for officers’ and residents’ safety.
“The equipment included under AB 481 does aid in providing distance and time allowing for us and our officers to establish communication with folks and providing additional opportunity to de-escalate situations,” Wentz said. “It can also provide ballistic shield resistance to rescue folks or critically injured individuals involved in dangerous situations.”

Wentz added that “the less and non-lethal tools under AB481 provide officers with those less or non-lethal lethal options.”

The police captain added that the equipment “is necessary because there is no reasonable alternative.”

“It will safeguard the public welfare,” he said.

Also, as part of the ordinance, the police chief or designee will serve as military equipment coordinator for the force, and an annual equipment report must be given, according to the staff report.

No community members spoke during public comments, but Councilman Jelani Killings gave “kudos to the (police) department for leading in terms of transparency” and making sure the department “has what’s necessary to keep the community safe.”

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