How Militarized are San Diego Police Forces?



Aug. 26, 2014 (San Diego) Images were seared into our minds. Police officers deploying in the streets wearing camouflage battle dress uniforms, body armor, helmets, radios, assault weapons and riding Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAP), as well as Bearcat vehicles designed for high-risk deployments. Some officers were on top of these vehicles, aiming long guns at civilians from a prone position as snipers.

This did not happen in Ferguson after riots broke out. These happened almost immediately as peaceful civil protests broke out and led to what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others have called an unnecessary escalation of force. It was, as if the town of Ferguson was occupied by a hostile army. Many of the local residents told as much to national media and live streamers such as Tim Poole.

In a long report titled War Comes Home the ACLU even questions the need of high-risk urban assault vehicles and highly armed Special Weapons and Tactics Teams (SWAT) when they are used to serve search warrants for small amounts of drugs. They also show that there is a clear racial component to the deployment of SWAT in these circumstances, with most of it being done in communities of color.

In the report, the ACLU points out that Los Angeles Police formed the first SWAT team after a couple high-risk incidents. Their goal was to deploy them in hostage, active shooter and barricade situations. Therefore, they have gone far afield of what they were used originally.

They have become the frontline of the war on drugs, a war that at this point is at it’s lowest popularity, with 67 percent of Americans believing that that drugs should be legalized and treatment should be widely available.

The ACLU noted that police forces have three sources of grants for their military gear. One of them is the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO). The program was created in the 1990s and has transferred just over 5 billion in property since it was created to police agencies from the Department of Defense (DoD). This has also gotten most of the attention by national media.

The list of what San Diego County has received through this program can be found at the Detroit Free Press.

The database at the site has data for all agencies in the nation, and is fully searchable. The San Diego list includes things you might expect in a DoD transfer. It includes 155 rifles and some pistols. Given the origin of the LESO program, those make perfect sense. The program was meant to better arm police to face heavily armed criminals during the height of the War on Drugs in the 1990s.

Another item in the list is an MRAP. There is only one in the list. Other items in the list include sights for the rifles, and cleaning kits. The list also includes first aid kits, tents, winter survival clothing (which given the winter in the Cuyamacas can be snowy makes sense). Then there is a single coffee maker, and a few digital cameras, as well as refrigerators and tools.

The list is not extravagant, especially when compared to other areas of the country that have gone on a virtual shopping spree to get equipment that otherwise they could not afford. It also should be noted that all weapons and vehicles are technically on loan from DoD, and in case of a major emergency DoD can take them back. Moreover, they need to be put into use within a year. In theory they have to be accounted for if transferred to another law enforcement agency and they cannot be sold.

If this were the only source for equipment, our local police forces would not be as militarized as others around the country. However, there are two other main sources of gear for police agencies around the country. Our local police departments have not been shy about applying for grants under these other programs.

The Justice Department has put in place the John Byrne Memorial Grants. They are supposed to go for things like funding your public defender office, and drug treatment. They can also be used for drug interdiction and buying equipment. According to Pro-Publica in fiscal year 2009 multiple agencies in San Diego were approved for just just over $36 million in grants. That is the most recent data we could find.

In 2009 they were also part of the Recovery Act, otherwise known as the stimulus package. For example, San Diego County received $3,396,452 for a multi jurisdictional task force programs. They also used $743,448 to buy equipment.

The South Community Services got half a million to work in situations of domestic abuse and prevention. While Aliant University got almost half a million for a program to deal with domestic and child abuse. But the lion’s share of the funds went to law enforcement.

San Diego Shérifs SWAT

San Diego Shérifs SWAT

The final source of equipment for our local agencies is Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants, chiefly those from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI). These grants were developed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to harden regions that were more prone to a terrorist attack.

Originally there were only seven cities in the list. That has expanded and in fiscal year 2011 San Diego was considered a Tier I region. Tier I are considered to be at higher risk.


FY 2011 Tier 1 UASI Areas

(CA) Los Angeles/Long Beach
(CA) San Francisco Bay Area
(CA) San Diego
(MA) Boston
(NJ) Jersey City/Newark
(NY) New York City
(PA) Philadelphia
(DC) District of Columbia
(TX) Houston,
(TX) Dallas/Fort Worth
(IL) Chicago


Given we have several military bases and share an international border, that should not surprise anyone. Yet, there are problems with the program.

According to Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) the UASI program was started to:

…be startup investments to help the most vulnerable urban areas enhance both their readiness and response capabilities. Officials in one urban area said it was well known that the grants were “seed money” and “everyone knew [federal] money would not be around forever.” Success for the UASI program, therefore, would be defined by it growing less needed, not more. DHS has since spent an estimated $35 billion on its grant programs over the past decade, including $7.144 billion for UASI Urban areas

The report, “Safety at Any Cost” goes in detail on how a program that started soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, meant to give seed money, has become another pork program that allowed local police to buy equipment that they cannot afford otherwise. These include fusion centers, as well as grants allowing police agencies to obtain military grade APCs and other specialized equipment. While San Diego is not in the same league as the State of Texas, which relies on 84 percent of grants to fund, it’s state police services according to the report, we have to wonder how much of the equipment our local police are getting they could not afford otherwise.

We know from reporting in the North County Times, now part of the UT that Bearcats, which are small APCs, produced by Lenco Industries, have been bought by the Cities of Carlsbad, Escondido, Oceanside, San Diego, Chula Vista and the Sheriff’s Department.

When these vehicles were bought, there were critics. One of them was Kris Vosburth, the executive director of the fiscally conservative Howards Jarvis Taxpayer Association. He :


…called the purchase of three BearCats an “outrageous” example of tax-dollar waste.

“Everyone assumes someone else is paying, but ultimately, all taxes are local —- they come from the vicinity of the taxpayer’s wallet,” Vosburgh said.

It would make far more sense for several agencies to share just one of the niche vehicles for emergencies, he said.

“What we’re really talking about here is a tank, and if we’re at the point where every small community needs a tank for protection, we’re in a lot more trouble as a state than I thought,” Vosburgh said.

The government mentality, he quipped, is “‘if we don’t get it, someone else will, and it will look cool in the Fourth of July Parade.’ That is absolutely the depth of the thinking.”


Senator Coburn shares this thinking. In his mind this is a waste of money since there are no metrics to show how all this equipment has made us safer, even 14 years after the start of the program.

In another article the Mayor of Escondido reflected this attitude when his city decided to buy Bearcast using federal funds.

Escondido Mayor Sam Abed said last week that federal grants are a help when it comes to buying specialized equipment the city may not otherwise be able to afford.

“If you ask me, ‘Should we use the general fund to do this (buy a BearCat),’ I say no, but this is federal government money,” he said. “If we don’t use it, it will go to someone else. I would rather have a piece of equipment the police can use to save lives.”

The ACLU also noted this attitude from former San Diego Police Chief William Landsdowne. They quoted him as follows:

The police chief in San Diego, California, expressed the same sentiment when asked about his agency’s decision to purchase an armored personnel carrier: “‘If we had to take on a terrorist group, we could do that,’ said William Lansdowne, the police chief in San Diego and a member of the board of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Though his force used federal grants to buy one of those fancy armored vehicles—complete with automatic-gun portals— he said the apparatus was more useful for traditional crime-busting than counter-terrorism.”E

This allows us to go back to the report from the ACLU. Police officers are not just getting tools that belong in a battlefield. The attitudes of police departments have also changed. This is a critical finding from the ACLU. Police officers see themselves as warriors, and as such, they see the citizens they serve as enemies.

They write: The culture of policing in America needs to evolve beyond the failed War on Drugs, and the police should stop perceiving the people who live in the communities they patrol—including those the police suspect of criminal activity—as enemies.

Other critical findings from the ACLU are that SWAT is increasingly used in the war on drugs to serve warrants, which risks escalation of situations. The ACLU is not saying get rid of SWAT, but return SWAT to the original mission and have SWAT deployments reviewed locally by civilian boards, and at the state level with legislation. In other words, there should be national standards for deployments and close local supervision, as well as transparency.

Moreover, all the police should be under the supervision of Civilian review boards. The City of San Diego has one. It is the product of police involved shootings back in the 1980s, but over the years quite a few of its teeth have been removed. If we were to follow the recommendations of the ACLU, we must restore all of those teeth, and add a few more. As to other departments in the county, the ACLU recommendation is that every police department has a civilian review board with real teeth.

As far as the APCs, while some of the original SWAT vehicles in the county were near the end of their service life, there must be a review of actual needs for the region. Do we really need an APC and SWAT team (with their added expenses) in every department in the region? Or maybe could they share? Because the federal funds are not going to remain forever, and when they go, they will still need maintenance and training.

Moreover, without the UASI funds, most of the cities in this county would not spend the money out of their general funds. So if they would not, why are they getting them from the Feds?

So while we are doing better insofar as militarized equipment than other regions, and our regional police academy does not teach this warrior mentality, we still are getting gear that can and will lead to boys with toys that want to use their toys syndrome.

David Couper, a retired police chief in Wisconsin wrote a critical lessons learned in his blog:


  • Police departments in every American city will have to be diverse, well-trained and educated, controlled in their use of force, honest, respectful, and strongly connected with those whom they serve. Additionally, they must be in a continual and on-going process of building trust which leads to community support and safer neighborhoods.
  • The initial response to protest and disorder by police needs to be “soft” and not present an overwhelming show of force and military hardware.(We learned this in Madison and it has worked for years.

These are critical points that need to be internalized. The initial response was provocative and a true show of force. But given how many departments have now acquired equipment more fitting for a battlefield than city streets, we can only hope our local police officers are not tested to the point where they feel they have to break out the gear. Given their response to the Occupy San Diego Movement, the only thing we can say is the response was softer than Ferguson, but that was just a matter of degree.

That said, San Diego sheriffs have deployed gear such as the LRAD, otherwise known as a sound cannon, which was also acquired with federal grants. This is from Senator Coburn’s report:


In 2009, the San Diego County Sheriff stationed its LRAD device at the town-hall meetings of Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA), Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), which drew conservative and liberal protestors. The San Diego sheriff’s stated that the LRADs were in place so they “could use the LRAD in place of pepper spray” if there were problem at the event, which there was not.

Coincidentally, we were at the event, and it was very peaceful. The LRAD remained on a corner of the building ready to go at all times though. It was an implied threat.

You can see all the details with the Bearcat here.

Twitter: @nadinbrzezinski

Facebook: Reporting San Diego

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Categories: County of San Diego, Police Forces, Uncategorized

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