Grand Jury Report on SWAT Training Exercise Got It Wrong

Alameda County lacks federal funding for emergency preparedness because the sheriff was not willing to spend money on that priority.

Residents across Alameda County want programs that prioritize prevention, recovery, and response to the disasters of fire, earthquake, and mass homelessness. But you would never know it from the county’s grand jury report on Urban Shield, a now defunct controversial training exercise that featured SWAT team competitions and promoted fear and militarization.

The grand jury’s report is filled with errors and preconceived conclusions about the county’s process for recasting the exercise. A majority of county supervisors supported recommendations to redesign the Urban Shield exercise to be more community-inclusive and address the more common disasters. Yet because the sheriff’s office would not comply with the Board of Supervisors’ mandate of a redesigned program, the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative board had no choice but to redistribute grant funds. The urban areas board is the body of 12 Bay Area counties that administers Homeland Security grant funding, and board chair Maryellen Carroll told me as much about the consequences of the sheriff’s decision.

The most prominent falsehood in the report is that the Bay Area lost federal funding for emergency preparedness. The urban areas board maintains the same level of funding for training and exercises for this year and next year. Every single one of the 12 Bay Area counties used the redistributed funds for training — except Alameda County.

The sheriff’s office used those funds to purchase helicopter infrared surveillance equipment. Buying helicopter cameras instead of training for emergencies reveals the hollowness of the sheriff’s office claims, and is inconsistent with Alameda County’s most urgent needs.

For next year, the urban areas board is convoking a process for training and exercises that will address functional and access needs that vulnerable communities have in disasters, something that critics of Urban Shield have demanded for years.

How did we get here? In March 2018, the Board of Supervisors decided to end Urban Shield “as currently constituted.” Sheriff Gregory Ahern never acknowledged that the program in its existing form was over. At the 2018 Urban Shield exercise, there was not a word of the supervisors’ decision.

The supervisors also appointed an ad hoc committee to form recommendations for how to make the exercise more responsive to Bay Area community disaster risks. I served on that committee.

The grand jury repeats claims that many of the ad hoc committee’s recommendations conflicted with federal grant guidelines. The ad hoc committee asked multiple times for specific evidence of what guidelines were in conflict with any of its recommendations, but the sheriff’s office and the urban areas board never produced such specific evidence. In fact, the ad hoc committee recommended strengthening compliance with federal guidelines requiring community involvement.

The Grand Jury also claimed that the ad hoc committee did not work with the sheriff’s office as directed, which is blatantly false. The committee heard three formal presentations from sheriff’s office staff, consulted with sheriff representatives who were present at every meeting, and held a five-hour meeting with the sheriff in March. At the same time, the committee was also charged with hearing community input and forming our own recommendations to redesign the exercise, which we did.

Readers should be aware that federal funds for preparedness still flow to the Bay Area — despite the Grand Jury’s erroneous claims that are too numerous too fully address here. Sheriff Ahern did not follow supervisors’ decisions to give communities a meaningful voice in emergency preparedness programs. Instead, he stormed out of the board chambers when those decisions were made, and his representative on the urban areas board quietly voted to redistribute training funds throughout the region.

The grand jury’s decision to focus on Urban Shield was questionable from the start, and reflects the biases of a group that is “too old, white, and wealthy,” in the words of a former grand jury member. Further proof of bias is evident in its conclusion that Santa Rita Jail has “no significant issues” — a jail that has been rocked with abuse lawsuits and has been dubbed “the most dangerous place in Alameda County.”

The grand Jjury would do better to address why Alameda County doesn’t dedicate more resources to community-based preparedness for disaster risks from fires, earthquakes, and mass displacement.

John Lindsay-Poland is Healing Justice Associate for the American Friends Service Committee and served on the Alameda County Ad Hoc Committee on the Urban Area Security Initiative.

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