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San Diego Sheriff’s Department can keep using military equipment, county says

A new California law requires police agencies to get approval to use — or continue using — certain equipment


San Diego County deputies stand on a roof above a rally on June 7, 2020.

K.C. Alfred

By David Hernandez
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego County Board of Supervisors gave the Sheriff’s Department the green light Tuesday to continue to use military equipment, including beanbag shotguns, armored vehicles and drones.

The action came in response to a new state law that requires law enforcement agencies to seek approval from governing bodies by May 1 to use — or continue to use — military equipment. The law aims to increase transparency, oversight and accountability in relation to law enforcement agencies’ acquisition and use of military gear.

In accordance with the law, the Sheriff’s Department drafted a military-equipment-use policy, which outlines its inventory, the purpose of each piece of equipment, associated costs and and other information. The department’s inventory includes less-lethal weapons and ammunition, flash bangs, tear gas, and tactical robots.

Department officials said the equipment is largely used by its specially trained SWAT team during critical incidents or tactical operations, although patrol, courthouse and jail deputies are equipped with less-lethal guns, such as beanbag shotguns and pepperball launchers.

During a presentation to the Board of Supervisors, sheriff’s Lt. Chris Steffen recounted a recent incident at a Spring Valley home where a man threatened his mother with a machete and threatened to shoot deputies.

During the incident, deputies on the SWAT team tried to communicate with the man using an armored vehicle’s public address system, Steffen said. The man did not respond, so deputies sent a robot, then a drone, to look inside the home. Then they deployed a flash bag and “chemical agents” — presumably tear gas.

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Eventually, the man surrendered.

Under the new law, the department will be required to issue an annual report that outlines how the equipment was used, any complaints or concerns from community members and the results of any internal audits or violations of policy. The department must also hold a community meeting within 30 days of issuing the report.

Supervisors will need to authorize future acquisitions of military equipment not already in the department’s inventory. According to the department, officials will first consider whether there are other “reasonable” and cost-effective alternatives.

While law enforcement officials view military equipment as tools to protect themselves and the public during dangerous or potentially dangerous situations, critics have said it creates a strong show of force that terrorizes neighborhoods, particularly communities of color. They also criticize law enforcement agencies’ use of less-lethal weapons, such as beanbag shotguns, to quell protests, as seen in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

Supervisors voted unanimously to approve the Sheriff’s Department’s continued use of military gear. The matter will return to the board for a final vote April 26.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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