City Council approves LBPD’s policies on the use of military equipment

The City Council voted 7-0 Tuesday to approve the Long Beach Police Department’s policy on how it will use its inventory of weapons and equipment that were originally designed for the military.

The LBPD has used military-grade equipment for years, but last night marked the first time City Council approval was needed thanks to AB 481, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in September 2021.

The law requires every law enforcement agency in the state to make public an annual inventory of any and all equipment it uses that was originally designed for the military along with its policy for using the equipment. To continue using the equipment, those documents had to gain approval from the department’s governing body—in this case, the City Council.

The LBPD will use these weapons and equipment “in accordance with State and federal laws to protect life and property, and to serve all people with respect, dignity, and in a constitutional manner,” according to a staff report from LBPD Chief Wally Hebeish. The report also notes that the department has not acquired any military equipment from the Department of Defense’s Law Enforcement Support Program “in recent years.”

Councilmember Rex Richardson, acting as Vice Mayor in the absence of Mayor Robert Garcia, noted that the City Council had never previously discussed the LBPD’s military weaponry in a public forum during the 12 years he’s been in city government. Though he said he anticipates that the issue will “become more complex over time,” he noted that AB 481 had “done its job” bringing transparency to the issue.

The LBPD’s inventory approved by the City Council shows the department already has—among other items—three armored trucks, several drones and robots, and 125 high-powered rifles meant to be used in various situations, such as confronting hostile suspects at a distance or allowing SWAT officers to fire sniper rounds from afar. Both Hebeish and Councilmember Daryl Supernaw noted that the LBPD’s Bearcat armored vehicle was deployed Sunday during a standoff in Los Altos.

Twelve members of the public spoke against the council approving the LBPD’s inventory. One resident, identified as Eric G, noted that many of the weapons listed on the inventory were “designed to overpower masses.” Another resident, Josh DeLeon, said, “We are not invaders, we are your neighbors.”

Jennifer Tu, the Ristad Fellow of the Philadelphia-based American Friends Service Committee, has followed the evolution AB 481 since before Newsom signed the bill into law. Prior to the council’s vote, she said that the law offers an “opportunity for increased transparency and accountability for all communities in California.”

While the disclosures of inventories of military equipment are valuable, Tu said the real accountability will come next year, when the LBPD begins filing annual reports on the department’s use of their military weapons and equipment. The reports will detail training, storage and maintenance costs associated with the inventory.

Through these annual reports the public will see in greater detail how the LBPD spends a good portion of its taxpayer-funded budget, Tu said. The first report will be due a year from now, though there’s nothing stopping the City Council from requesting one earlier, according to Tu.

Two of the most powerful weapons listed in the LBPD inventory are a Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle—intended to be used to stop a moving vehicle when no other options are available—and two FN America M240B 7.62x51mm NATO rifles, which are “medium machine guns” primarily used by U.S. soldiers in battlefields like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the manufacturer.

The LBPD acquired the weapons to be used in especially dangerous and extreme events such as acts of terrorism, according to an LBPD spokesperson.

Just four SWAT officers are trained and certified to use the Barrett rifle and FN America guns, according to the LBPD. None of them have yet been used in action, according to the LBPD.

The inventory also includes a detailed accounting of “less-lethal rounds,” like 40-millimeter foam projectiles that the LBPD used extensively during the 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd. One journalist was hit in the neck by such a round and required treatment at a hospital.

The LBPD has a policy prohibiting “bias-based policing practices” and “racial profiling,” Hebeish added in the report on how the equipment is used.

The council’s vote was originally scheduled to take place July 5, but City Council members agreed to delay it because just a few days before the meeting the police department added an item to the inventory, which the department first released back in May, according to City Attorney Charles Parkin.

On June 29, the LBPD added the Strongwatch Mobile Video Surveillance system. Also called “Freedom On-The-Move,” it’s basically a sophisticated camera mounted in the bed of a GMC Sierra pickup truck.

The system is capable of live-streaming video to a command center so police can “monitor a situation in real time and coordinate responses to public safety threats,” according to the LBPD’s revised inventory. The surveillance system was reportedly used to monitor a Black Lives Matter Long Beach protest march in July 2020.

In 2021, the ACLU released a national accounting of military equipment held by police departments. It found that departments across the country possess more than 60,000 military-style rifles and 1,500 combat vehicles and tanks.

City Council scheduled to vote on whether LBPD can use military equipment

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Anthony Pignataro is an investigative reporter and editor for the Long Beach Post. He has close to three decades of experience in journalism leading numerous investigations and long-form journalism projects for the OC Weekly and other publications. He joined the Post in May 2021.
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