In 2021, Governor Newsome signed Assembly Bill 481 (Chiu), which mandated local municipalities establish policies for the use of military equipment by their respective police departments. The law went into effect on January 1 of this year and municipalities must pass ordinances for use of this equipment by May, 2022.

The bill was a response to concerns that law enforcement agencies are becoming too militarized in their equipment, weaponry, and style of enforcing the law. The new law defines the following as military equipment:

“Unmanned, remotely piloted, powered aerial or ground vehicles; Humvees; command and control vehicles; breaching apparatuses that are explosive in nature; flashbangs; and firearms and ammunition of .50 caliber or greater.” Also included – at least by the City of Beverly Hills – are some robotics, drones, and projectile launch platforms and their accompanying munitions.

And specifically declares the following:

  • “The acquisition of military equipment and its deployment in our communities adversely impacts the public’s safety and welfare, including increased risk of civilian deaths, significant risks to civil rights, civil liberties, and physical and psychological well-being, and incurment of significant financial costs. Military equipment is more frequently deployed in low-income Black and Brown communities, meaning the risks and impacts of police militarization are experienced most acutely in marginalized communities.
  • The public has a right to know about any funding, acquisition, or use of military equipment by state or local government officials, as well as a right to participate in any government agency’s decision to fund, acquire, or use such equipment.
  • Decisions regarding whether and how military equipment is funded, acquired, or used should give strong consideration to the public’s welfare, safety, civil rights, and civil liberties, and should be based on meaningful public input.
  • Legally enforceable safeguards, including transparency, oversight, and accountability measures, must be in place to protect the public’s welfare, safety, civil rights, and civil liberties before military equipment is funded, acquired, or used.
  • The lack of a public forum to discuss the acquisition of military equipment jeopardizes the relationship police have with the community, which can be undermined when law enforcement is seen as an occupying force rather than a public safety service.”

According to the new law, city councils throughout the state can only approve policies on the use of military equipment that meet the following criteria:

  1. “The military equipment is necessary because there is no reasonable alternative that can achieve the same objective of officer and civilian safety.
  2. The proposed military equipment use policy will safeguard the public’s welfare, safety, civil rights, and civil liberties.
  3. If purchasing the equipment, the equipment is reasonably cost effective compared to available alternatives that can achieve the same objective of officer and civilian safety.
  4. Prior military equipment use complied with the military equipment use policy that was in effect at the time, or if prior uses did not comply with the accompanying military equipment use policy, corrective action has been taken to remedy nonconforming uses and ensure future compliance.”

Now, our local municipalities have agendized at the city council level discussion and establishment of policies with regard to use of such equipment. Santa Monica city staff recommended at last night’s meeting that the Chief of the Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) appoint one of its ranks as a “Military Equipment Coordinator” to carry out various duties to comply with the law.

Santa Monica

Tuesday’s council meeting represented the first reading of the military equipment use policy. It introduced council members to the law, and how the process will play in approving an ordinance governing the Santa Monica Police Departments (SMPD) use of this equipment.

SMPD Chief Ramon Batista spoke first, and preemptively wanted to make clear that, “The equipment that we have on hand, although deemed ‘military equipment’ by California law, is equipment made solely for domestic policing, domestic public safety in the United States.”

SMPD Captain Candice Cobarrubias then took over the staff report, and confirmed that the law states that any equipment purchased by police departments “through a military program” before January 1, 2022, be subject to approval by city councils, and further purchases be approved annually. She said, “We know there’s a lot of questions why we use things that we do, and we want to make sure the community knows that we’re open and available to commentary and discussion.” She outlined that there will be a great deal of community outreach to “bridge that communication about our equipment.” She assured the council, “Every year we will host a community meeting to open up the conversation with our residents.”

Councilmember Gleam Davis asked if the Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission (PSROC) could be added as an annual stop for reporting and collaboration on this issue, Cobarrubias didn’t see a problem with it, but assured council they at the very least would be a part of the annual town hall.

Councilmember Oscar De La Torre said, “I’m glad to hear the Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission will also have a chance to weigh in on the policy. That’s a best practice, so I appreciate that.”

But Councilmember Phil Brock got right into his curiosity about the military inventory, asking, “Do we still have the BearCat?” (an armored and tactical personnel carrier built for off-road travel). Cobarrubias confirmed that the SMPD does, and that it would be classified among this group of equipment.

Mayor Sue Himmelrich asked to get a sense for how often the equipment is used, to which the captain said was not for everyday uses, but for only the most serious and dangerous tactical operations such as kidnappings and back robberies.

Returning to Davis’ concern, the council added language to the ordinance that would codify that the PSROC be given the annual report as well as the council. The council then passed the ordinance – waving further readings – by a 7-0 vote.

It then passed a second motion requiring the SMPD to consult with the PSROC on the policy for use of military equipment before it returns to council.

Beverly Hills

The Beverly Hills City Council took up the matter back on April 12. In the Beverly Hills Police Department’s (BHPD) full report to the council, some 98 pages outline and describe all of the equipment in use. Officers present to represent the BHPD characterized the equipment as, “critical items and tools that we have had in use for many years – some of them decades – and are really critical to continue police operations and maintain public safety.”

Councilmember Lester Friedman expressed his confidence in approving a military use ordinance, saying, “I had some experience, first hand during 2020, and I know the equipment is used only appropriately and when necessary.”

Officers stated that they would return each year to report uses of military equipment as well as seek approval for new purchase. Councilmember John Mirisch asked for clarification on that timing. Officers confirmed that if a new, previously unused piece of equipment was deemed necessary just a few months following adoption of the policy, they would return at that time for approval, and would not wait out the year. Mirisch also expressed his support, saying, “We trust the equipment that you need to make the community safe.”

Beverly Hill’s policy, like that of Santa Monica, declares that the Chief of Police designate a “Military Equipment Coordinator” from among the ranks of the BHPD. In both cities the policies state this person would liaise with the council, hold an annual public engagement meeting with members of the community, post required notices, enforce compliance with the policy among all officers, and prepare and deliver the annual report of the use of military equipment required by law.

The council passed adoption of the ordinance on use of military equipment 5-0.

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