SWAT equipment, such as this Kevlar helmet, are some of the things that the LBPD can acquire through the CPSPP. Photos by Brian Addison.
The Long Beach City Council unanimously approved the extension of the California Public Safety Procurement Program (CPSPP) through July 2019, allowing the Long Beach Police Department to continue to procure excess military equipment from the federal government under the Federal 1033 Excess Property Program.
The program allows for the transfer of government property to federal and state agencies that the Secretary of Defense has deemed suitable for law enforcement activities.
According to a letter sent from Jim McDonnell to the council advocating for the passage of the extension, the police department “has received a surplus 26-foot Boston Whaler boat and trailer, Ford diesel pickup truck and tactical equipment used to support existing operations,” all of which would have to be returned had the extension not been approved.
Deputy Chief Laura Farinella spoke before the council and testified as to the usefulness of the program, especially to the Port Police Division she oversees, which benefitted from the acquisition of a marine vessel now used to patrol the waters of the Port. Although the vote extends LBPD’s ability to continue to identify and request equipment from the government, Farinella stated that the department isn’t actively seeking out any new materials.
“Currently we’re not reaching out to look for any equipment,” Farinella said. “We received this equipment on the inception of when we started to provide police patrols on the water in the Port and were trying to build our fleet. So it was a way—for free, at no cost for us—to get a vessel to patrol the waters within the Port complex.”
Before approving the extension of the CPSPP, the council questioned Farinella on the program’s benefits to the city, and new 7th District Councilmember Roberto Uranga expressed concerns about the possible militarization of the LBPD. However, after the brief segment of questions and zero public comment from the mostly empty council chamber, the extension was approved 9-0.
“I think this is a net benefit for the city of Long Beach,” Austin said. “Especially given our Port operations is a point of entry as well as the airport, I think it’s important for us to have the resources and the tools for us to protect our city so I’ll be supporting this.”
Not all agree with Austin, including Long Beach resident and former LAPD Deputy Chief Stephen Downing, who has been an outspoken critic of the CPSPP.
"The CPSPP Program is nothing more than a pass-though system that allows local law enforcement to acquire military grade equipment from the Pentagon under the now infamous Federal 1033 Excess Property Program recently exposed nationwide as a major catalyst contributing to the militarization of local law enforcement across the nation," Downing told the Post. "As written, the recommendation to participate provides no civilian oversight related to future decision making by the police department as to the types of military surplus equipment that the police department will undertake to acquire over the next five years. City government should position itself to require a system of review, recommendation and public hearings on the specific types of equipment that the Police Department undertakes to acquire over the next five years so as to measure public sentiment and avoid the kinds of abuses exposed these past weeks as a result of national attention focused upon Ferguson."
The proliferation of military equipment being put in the hands of civilian police forces and the images that emerged during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri after an officer involved shooting resulted in the death of an unarmed teenager have sparked a national debate about the militarization of police departments.
Deputy Chief Robert Luna, a member of the LBPD since 1985, said that the department’s philosophy is rooted in community policing. Maintaining a positive and healthy relationship with the people they are assigned to serve and protect is one of the department’s main objectives. Still, he believes that program is a necessity to have a prepared and properly equipped police force.
“If we have a situation similar to [Ferguson], we want to perform to the best of our abilities, we want to perform to the expectations of our community,” Luna said. “The last thing that I want to see—the last thing any of us at the police department wants to see—is the police looking like the military.”
The opinion that the line between military and law enforcement is disappearing is one that has grown with the increased distribution of military hardware under the 1033 program, which originated in the early 1990s.
Although it didn’t distinguish between departments, a map produced by the New York Times provided a detailed breakdown of types of military surplus materials acquired from the federal government by every county in the country since 2006. Los Angeles County law enforcement agencies accounted for over 3,400 assault rifles, nearly 1,700 pieces of body armor, 15 helicopters, 4 armored vehicles, 3 mine resistant vehicles and even an airplane. Nationally, nearly 94,000 machine guns (5.56 mm and 7.62 mm rifles), 435 armored vehicles and 533 aircraft have been placed under local law enforcement control.
Luna stressed that although the CPSPP allows for the department to request any approved material from the government, it isn’t a free for all. Items that are targeted by the department for possible acquisition must go through an approval process before becoming LBPD property.
“When we go out to acquire equipment, it’s not just two or three people saying, ‘Oh, that piece of equipment looks cool, that’s something we want,’” Luna said. “There’s an entire process that we have. If someone identifies a piece of equipment that they believe is going to be needed to fulfill the policing mission in the city of Long Beach, it has to go through an approval path; not only internal to the police department, but at City Hall. It is scrutinized like you would not believe.”
Luna said that in addition to the vessel and trailer listed in the letter to the council, the department has also acquired an undisclosed number of M16 rifles and military grade Kevlar helmets that officers are issued for riot control situations, or when working a scene where shots have been fired. All of the materials procured come at no cost to the City other than the transportation and maintenance after being received. The rifles, which Luna said could retail for upward of $2,000, along with the other materials gathered by the department, have saved the City a considerable amount of money during a period of budgetary constraints.
“I don’t think I have to tell you that the last 10 years in this City, budget-wise, have been very difficult,” Luna said. “So for us to be able to reach out and procure equipment that basically the only thing you’re paying for is the transportation of and maintenance of once you have it... If you’re able to put equipment in your officers’ hands, then that will help us do our job better.”
He explained that Long Beach is a very diverse city and has many potential targets—the Port, airport, a major university—that the police department needs to have the ability to defend.
“Everything that makes this city one of the best cities to visit and live in also may make it a target for people that want to do harm to us,” Luna said.
Luna knows that image is important, especially when it comes to maintaining the public’s trust. By participating in this program, the department has opened itself up to some tough questions, questions that he said the public has every right to ask. He said that the policies of professionalism, strict accountability and zero tolerance for the misuse of equipment will help the LBPD avoid the pitfalls of some of the other agencies that participate in the 1033 program, which have garnered negative press nationally.
“The world has changed and we have to adapt to it,” Luna said. “This equipment allows us as police department, us as a city, to serve our community in a better way while at the same time saving money.”