This past weekend in Pleasanton, California, a suburb of San Francisco, elite police teams from as far away as South Korea, Uruguay, and Jordan converged for the ninth annual Urban Shield Expo and Conference, one of the largest tactical-police summits in the world. According to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which manages Urban Shield, almost 6,000 volunteers agreed to help SWAT teams coordinate with fire departments, healthcare providers, and other agencies to simulate responses to “mass casualty” events like attacks against law enforcement, mass shootings, and earthquakes. For 48 hours across five counties in Northern California, teams of police dressed like soldiers toted assault rifles down suburban streets and burst into buildings as part of a series of tactical exercises. By most accounts, Urban Shield is now one of the largest training events for militarized police in the world.
While proponents say the program prepares governments for disasters, critics say it’s ground zero for police to refine and exchange repressive military tactics. A campaign called Stop Urban Shield Coalition mobilized at least 150 demonstrators to march in protest against the event through downtown Oakland. “Our goal is to prevent Urban Shield from continuing and stopping the County from renewing its contract,” said Ali Issa, a field organizer with the War Resisters League, one of four groups on the coalition’s coordinating committee. For Issa and the coalition, Urban Shield is the epitome of a militarized security apparatus that maims, tracks, and controls black and brown people.
Sergeant J.D. Nelson, a spokesperson for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, couldn’t understand why people took issue with an event that’s meant, in his view, to keep everybody safer in the event of disaster. “Fire and medical teams won’t come in without an escort, period,” he told The Nation. “So police have to have some sort of methodology to lead them so you can save lives.”
But given the history of police relations with their communities, says Mohamed Shehk, a spokesperson for the Stop Urban Shield Coalition, a militarized police force and the criminalization it engenders are the primary threats against America’s nonwhite underclass. “We definitely see Urban Shield as kind of the epitome of the systems we’re working against,” Shehk said.
Urban Shield is funded primarily by a Department of Homeland Security grant called the Urban Areas Security Initiative, which this year will disburse $587 million for mass-disaster security preparations to 28 major cities deemed most at risk. Alameda County will have received $6,358,000 from UASI between November 1, 2014, and February 28, 2016, and $1.7 million of those funds must be spent on Urban Shield. How the money is spent is entirely at the discretion of the Sheriff’s Office, according to Shawn Wilson, a spokesperson for the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.
The program was initially created in 2007 by the Alameda county sheriff as a regional response simulation for terrorist attacks, but in recent years teams of police from across the country and globe have shown up to train and observe. Teams from across the United States, including the Jacksonville [Florida] County Sheriff’s Office, the Miami-Dade Police Department, and the Travis County [Texas] Sheriff’s Office, were joined by counterparts from China and Israel, among others, to study or participate in 58 anti-terror scenarios, although the summit’s main event was a coordinated response to a large earthquake. J.D. Nelson said all of the teams “learn from each other” and leave with new ideas.