PHOTO BY AIRMAN FIRST CLASS TRISTAN D. VIGLIANCO/CREATIVE COMMONS
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 at the end of a five-hour meeting on Tuesday to accept most of a committee’s recommendations to make sweeping changes to its “Urban Shield” first-responder training exercise.
Those changes recommended by an ad hoc committee appointed by the board last year including eliminating military-type SWAT teams and competition from the annual exercises, eliminating its weapons expo and vendor show component, getting rid of the “Urban Shield” label and evaluating law enforcement participants’ compliance with their departments’ use-of-force policies.
Another change is ensuring that the majority of the people responsible for implementing emergency response services are fire emergency managers and community organizations serving vulnerable populations rather than being over-represented by law enforcement.
After the meeting, Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern called the board’s vote “a big disappointment” because he thinks it means that the Urban Shield exercise, which his department launched in 2007, will now come to an end.
Ahern said that’s because in his opinion, the changes approved by the board violate the county’s memorandum of understanding with the federal Urban Shield Area Security Initiative (UASI) program for emergency preparedness and the county won’t get the $5 million in funding it was set to get from the program.
Ahern warned the board about that possibility before it voted, but Supervisor Wilma Chan told him, “I recognize your opinion but the board has given direction” on how it plans to proceed.
Chan said, “We’ll see what happens” when UASI’s board meets on March 14 to decide which programs it will fund.
The sheriff’s office said it started Urban Shield because it believes the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, showed that law enforcement agencies weren’t well prepared for such attacks.
More than 100 agencies and thousands of people, including some from foreign countries, have participated in past conferences, which are held each September.
But the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to end the training exercise in its current format at a meeting last March at which the vast majority of more than 100 speakers alleged that it is militaristic, racist and xenophobic and has a negative impact on communities of color and immigrants.
The board’s vote allowed the exercise to continue in its old format for one final time last September, but called for its format in 2019 and future years to focus more and training for natural disasters and less on terrorism and on weapons vendors.
Sheriff’s officials say the purpose of the conference is to train law enforcement officers, firefighters and paramedics on how to respond to natural disasters as well as man-made disasters such as explosions and mass shootings.
The supervisors’ vote last March called for forming an ad hoc committee on Urban Shield to offer a new vision and strategic approach for emergency management in the county. The committee came up with its recommendations after a long series of community meetings.
Many committee members and training program opponents, including members of the Stop Urban Shield Coalition, spoke in favor of the committee’s recommendations at the Board of Supervisors meeting.
But many Urban Shield supporters, including law enforcement officials and medical professionals spoke in favor of continuing Urban Shield.
Amber Piatt of the Public Health Justice Collective and the Stop Urban Shield Coalition said after the vote, “We applaud the supervisors, especially Supervisor Chan, for moving along these common senses recommendations despite the sheriff’s attempts to sabotage the mandate and recommendations of the ad hoc committee.”
Supervisor Scott Haggerty voted in favor of accepting non-controversial committee proposals that Ahern agreed to but because he had to leave for a medical appointment he was absent when the board voted on the proposals to which Ahern objected.
Haggerty said he would have voted against the controversial proposals because he favors keeping the program mostly as it is.
Referring to Urban Shield opponents, Haggerty said, “In this county there are some citizens who don’t want our first responders to be prepared.”