San Diego mayor eyes more restrictions on police use of military equipment

A proposed policy would more clearly outline what equipment can be used and when

By David Garrick
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The use of military weapons and equipment by San Diego police would face greater scrutiny and be more transparent to the public under a new policy Mayor Todd Gloria says he will unveil next month.

The policy is in direct response to complaints that the Police Department used surplus military equipment to help quell some of the many protests against police violence that took place across the city last year.

Gloria's staff says the mayor wants there to be unambiguous criteria for when the Police Department can receive military weapons and equipment, what types of items they can take and in what specific circumstances those items can be used.

The policy, which Gloria is scheduled to present to the City Council's public safety committee Sept. 22, also would require that the public be notified when the Police Department acquires any military-grade equipment.

Law enforcement agencies already must certify they have obtained the authorization of the relevant local governing authority. The Defense Department also posts a web notice when it transfers equipment.

Gloria's staff also is working with Police Chief David Nisleit and his staff to determine precisely when military equipment, particularly tanks or armored support vehicles, can be used.

The mayor tentatively plans to include on that list terrorist attacks, active shooter situations and hostage rescues, but his staff said this week that the list could grow or shrink between now and when the proposed policy is unveiled.

One hurdle to creating a firm list is that each law enforcement crisis has different context and circumstances.

A leading advocate for local police reform called Gloria's new policy a step in the right direction but said she would prefer if the mayor planned to also eliminate the military weapons and equipment the city already has.

"We haven't seen anything go away yet," said Francine Maxwell, president of the local NAACP chapter. "And we have some of the latest and greatest."

Maxwell said Gloria needs to go further.

"Unless we have a culture shift, it won't create the trust we need," she said.

The labor union representing police officers is expressing no objections to the new policy but wants to ensure local officers will continue to have access to medical supplies they get from the military, like gauze pads and clotting agents. Jack Schaeffer, union president, said those supplies can be crucial when someone has been shot, stabbed or in a serious car crash.

Schaeffer said the city hasn't gotten military weapons through the program in many years.

"It's not going to be a big deal for us," he said.

The proposed policy is part of a package of police reforms Gloria announced last spring that he says will increase police accountability to the community and boost transparency of police decision-making.

Other proposals address the use of tear gas, gang injunctions, as well as police hiring practices and training focused on reducing racial bias.

"It's time for the city to take a hard look at and update its police practices for modern times," Gloria said. "Every San Diegan should feel safe in our city and have trust in our Police Department."

Gloria also announced in early August that he has severed the city's Office of Homeland Security from the Police Department and re-named the newly independent agency the Office of Emergency Services.

On the military equipment policy, city and police officials are conducting an inventory of exactly what militarized weapons and equipment the Police Department already has. Law enforcement agencies often acquire such items through the Defense Department's 1033 program.

The program, which dates back to the 1990s, transfers excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies. Through 2020, 8,200 local law enforcement agencies had participated in the program and received more than $7.7 billion in military material.

Weapons typically acquired through the program include rifles and excess ammunition. Equipment acquired through the program often includes vehicles, radios and other communications devices.

The vast majority of property issued to law enforcement agencies each year common items that would be sold to the general public, such as office equipment, first aid kits/supplies, hand tools, sleeping bags, computers and digital cameras. In fiscal year 2020, 92% of the items transferred were of this type.

Some protestors and social justice advocates have criticized San Diego for having its officers wear tactical gear during protests and for using "tanks" to intimidate protestors.

Police Department officials say they don't have any tanks, but the department does have an armored support vehicle, which is less sturdy than a tank but is designed to move multiple people and gear.

Complaints about last year's protests already prompted the Police Department to unveil in March new parameters on how officers can respond, including when they should give dispersal orders and when they can fire rubber bullets.

The parameters also say the department's goals are to ensure that rallies stay peaceful, prevent criminal activities, control traffic and "facilitate the safe exercise of an individual or a group's First Amendment rights."

City officials say they are basing the new military equipment policy on a similar policy adopted many years ago by the state of Montana. Many other cities have used the Montana policy as a model.

Gloria says severing the city's Office of Homeland Security from the Police Department will refocus city efforts on disaster preparedness, including wildfires, and it will clarify some responsibilities.

"Responding to a disaster is about providing the critical services San Diegans need to endure and recover — that's why my administration has proposed this change," Gloria said. "The new Office of Emergency Services positions the city to better respond in times of crisis with a coordinated, regional approach that will make San Diego safer for all of us."

The new agency will be led by former city Fire Deputy Chief Christopher Heiser.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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