Guild Working to Oppose Police Militarization, Surveillance

Sharon Adams
Executive Board Member

The NLGSF has been working with partner organizations to ensure that local law enforcement does not start acquiring new, dangerous tools, and that it remains clearly separate from the worst aspects of federal policing. We’ve had some successes, but there is still much work to do.

Last summer, the police departments of Berkeley, UC Berkeley and Albany were poised to jointly purchase a Lenco Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck. At that time, federal Homeland Security types informed local police that federal grant money was available for purchasing a tank. Through a Public Records Act request, Berkeley Copwatch learned that the feds and Berkeley Police Department (BPD) engaged in lengthy discussions about available tanks, training and maintenance costs (to be borne by the taxpayers of Berkeley and Albany). Resident and a number of organizations, including the NLGSF and the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley (C4SB), came together to speak out against this militarization of BPD. Due to public awareness and pressure, Berkeley enacted a requirement that BPD must get approval from the City Council for any future Homeland Security grant funds. And, in the end the tank was not acquired.

This is a good first step, but the struggle against militarized policing continues in Alameda County. On Dec. 7, one Board of Supervisors agenda item was the Alameda County Sheriff’s request for approval of a Homeland Security grant to obtain a drone. The NLG along with the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and Alameda County Against Drones (ACAD) successfully delayed the approval from happening in December. But, the Sheriff hasn’t given up, and will be back in early 2013 with a renewed attempt.

If Alameda County gets a drone, then under standard police Mutual Aid agreements, the drone may be used anywhere in the Bay Area. Under the rubric of Homeland Security, all local police departments enter into regional mutual aid agreements under which they share equipment and information.

In addition to Mutual Aid agreements, local police departments enter into agreement with federal law enforcement agencies. For example, BPD and SFPD each has written agreements with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. Under these agreements, local police submit Suspicious Activity Reports (SAR) to federal databases. These SARs can and are submitted for all sorts of non-criminal activity, taking photos for example. In Berkeley, NLG members and the C4SB worked with the Berkeley City Council on this issue. As a result, the Council enacted a new policy stating that BPD may submit a SAR only after establishing “reasonable suspicion” of criminal behavior.

In San Francisco, the Coalition for a Safe San Francisco and NLG members worked closely with SF city government to pass legislation that requires (1) adherence to San Francisco and California local standards when the SFPD works with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF); and (2) that before any new agreements are entered into between the SFPD and the FBI regarding the JTTF work, that those agreements must be subject to public review and comment before the Police Commission.

People are taking steps to push back against increasing police militarization, and more action is needed. Keeping drones out of Alameda County would be a victory only because it would maintain the status quo. We also need to end a lot of these agreements that already exist between local law enforcement and the federal government and ensure there is more accountability and transparency.