Santa Clara took a step toward police transparency Tuesday when the City Council approved a new policy determining when and how its police department will be allowed to use military-level equipment.
The policy, which the City Council approved unanimously, guides how the Santa Clara Police Department should pay for, acquire and use certain types of gear considered military equipment—including the armored vehicle, sniper rifles and unmanned aircraft or drones it already owns.
The policy stems from Assembly Bill 481, a state law approved last year that requires governing bodies of law enforcement agencies to adopt regulations for any equipment the police department previously obtained that’s considered military-level equipment. The law also requires police to annually report to the public how it used the equipment, if any complaints were received, if there were any internal audits or violations of the policy and how much it costs to use that equipment, according to the city website. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law last September.
With the approval of the new policy, the police department’s first deadline for that annual report is May 2023, according to Police Chief Pat Nikolai. The new policy is aimed at transparency and informing the community about the equipment the department has, he said.
“We’ve been using this equipment for years. This isn’t something new,” he told the council. “We’re not trying to militarize our department. We’re just basically getting approval to use the equipment that we already have.”
The military-level equipment Santa Clara police owns include a robot and unmanned aircraft; an armored rescue vehicle; sniper rifles, bullets and “noise flash diversionary devices,” which are loud and emit a bright light and might be used in a hostage situation. The department also has tear gas and “pepperball” devices, which are like paintballs but contain a powdery pepper substance instead, as well as less-lethal devices which have a further range than Tasers, police Lt. Cory Morgan said at a February meeting to collect community input on the policy.
He said the items have had a positive impact in resolving dangerous situations.
For instance, he said, a SWAT team used one of the noise flash diversionary devices to take someone into custody who had been barricaded in a bathroom.
The department hasn’t used some military-level equipment such as sniper rifles, Morgan said, but there could be situations where police could use them to address a dangerous situation.
“In the case of our sniper rifles, we’ve had them for over 40 years and have never had to use them in a real incident,” Morgan said.
Before voting to approve the new policy, Councilmember Anthony Becker said the new policy emphasizes transparency between the community and the police department. He added that the military-level equipment items in the police department’s inventory appear “pretty normal,” especially with a stadium within the city.
“I’m about police reform, but at the same time I’m about public safety,” he said.
Contact Kate Bradshaw at [email protected] or @bradshk14 on Twitter.