Santa Clara County considers overhauling ‘military-style’ weapons policy
A protester calls for disarming police during a march from the San Jose Police Department to City Hall in 2020. File photo by Katie Lauer.

Santa Clara County is considering overhauling and regulating the sheriff’s “military-style” weapons policy, heeding calls for the demilitarization of law enforcement.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to analyze how the Sheriff’s Office spends its budget on equipment. Supervisors hope to reform or get rid of what they believe is overboard spending on lethal weapons and gear.

“All too often the moment of public awareness and engagement passes and the work then does not get done,” said Supervisor Joe Simitian. “I want to make sure with these issues that doesn’t happen.”

The U.S. Department of Defense allows local law enforcement agencies to apply for surplus weapons from the military under its 1033 Program, named after a section of the National Defense Authorization Act.

Within the past 10 years, Bay Area law enforcement agencies acquired more than $11 million worth of military equipment, including trucks and ballistic equipment, through the program. The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office spent approximately $4,700 on 157 reflex sights for firearms and six camouflage sets.

“The equipment we do have is standard police issue,” said Assistant Sheriff Dalia Rodriguez, who noted that the office does not have weapons over .50 caliber. “All our weaponry is for the environment we currently enforce.”

Meanwhile, the San Jose Police Department purchased 11 different types of items for more than $835,000, including a $733,000 mine-resistant vehicle and an $85,000 camera system.

Representatives from the SJPD declined to comment, instead deferring to county officials.

Calls by activists to end the federal program, which police departments across the country utilize, followed the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis policeman kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Proposed reforms include calls for transparency and banning police from public schools.

“We should not be living in a police state,” said Sajid Khan, a public defender with Santa Clara County who believes military-style weapons in police departments leads to law enforcement disproportionately surveilling and monitoring people of color. “We should be living in a free society and community where things like rallies and protests and expressions of free speech are honored and protected, and are not thwarted by police violence and military equipment.”

Calls for police reform led to some movement in the state: Assemblymember David Chiu introduced Assembly Bill 481 in February, which would require police departments to obtain approval from local elected officials before acquiring military-style equipment.

At Tuesday’s meeting, supervisors requested a detailed inventory of the county’s weapons list and a more robust definition of “military-style” weapons. The office details weapons and equipment used by deputies acquired under the 1033 Program, but gives little information on how many weapons the office has or how they’re allocated. That’s led Simitian, along with Supervisors Otto Lee and Susan Ellenberg, to request a full inventory from the sheriff, a better-defined weapons procurement policy and a broader discussion on other equipment besides weapons, such as armored vehicles.

Board President Mike Wasserman, however, believes that such disclosures won’t ensure the Sheriff’s Office will be less likely to use excessive force.

“Whether you have 5,000 or 10,000 rounds … it doesn’t matter to me,” Wasserman said. “It’s not the baton that’s guilty of excessive force, it would be the officer—if excessive force is found to have happened.”

Tuesday’s discussion followed a broader conversation on Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office reform held in June, which included discussion on the use of force and concerns of racial bias—especially as the Sheriff’s Office earned an F on Campaign Zero’s policing scorecard in 2020, ranking 55th out of the state’s 58 sheriff’s offices.

A report from officials on how the county can implement AB 481 will be heard on May 4.

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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