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New State Law: Draft Military Equipment Use Policy, Next Steps & Ways to Share Input

Learn about a new state law requiring all California local law enforcement agencies to implement a policy on the deployment of certain equipment, regularly gain City Council authorization for its use, and how the community can provide input

A new law, Assembly Bill 481, was one of several police reform bills signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in September 2021. It went into effect on January 1, 2022. AB 481 is designed to increase community awareness surrounding a police agency’s possession and use of certain types of equipment and requires the City Council to provide both authorization and oversight of its use. The Palo Alto Police Department’s proposed policy can be viewed here, and public input on the policy can be shared through a dedicated input form here. The City Council will be considering the proposed policy no later than November 1 of this year. Police agencies across the state are developing similar policies in response to this new law. It should be noted that the policy does not contemplate the addition of any new equipment; it simply describes equipment already in the Police Department’s possession. Also, for reference, the Department does not possess any equipment that is “atypical” for the region and Palo Alto possesses fewer types of this equipment than many other Bay Area agencies. Many other agencies have their AB 481 policies posted online.

This blog provides details on the new state law, annual reporting required on the deployment of the equipment, steps needed including ongoing Council authorization for its continued use, and ways the community can provide input on the proposed policy.

Equipment Defined within the New State Law & Other Proposed Policy Details

The term “military equipment” might bring to mind pieces of excess military equipment owned by the United States armed forces that are given to local and state law enforcement agencies as part of a federal government effort (formerly known as the “1033 program”) coordinated by the Law Enforcement Support Office of the Defense Logistics Agency. Some law enforcement agencies use this program to receive armored vehicles, helicopters, and other equipment typically recognizable by the average resident as being of obvious military origin. The Palo Alto Police Department does not use this program or deploy any surplus military equipment.

While AB 481 defines the term “military equipment” to include those pieces of surplus military equipment obtained directly from the armed forces, it also includes many pieces of equipment that are actually designed exclusively for, and commonly used by, local law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. While the Palo Alto Police Department does possess some equipment as defined by AB 481 as described in the proposed policy, it is worth noting that the types of equipment possessed by the Palo Alto Police Department have been possessed for years (in some cases, decades), and it is all designed specifically for a law enforcement (not military) application. Also notable is that the Palo Alto Police Department possesses fewer types of qualifying equipment than many other Bay Area law enforcement agencies. For example, the Department does not possess any unmanned aerial vehicles, robots, or armored vehicles.

For each type of qualifying equipment possessed by the Palo Alto Police Department, the possession and use of that equipment was already governed by applicable Department policy, various statutes, and state and federal case law prior to the enacting of AB 481. Personnel of the Palo Alto Police Department meet or exceed all California Peace Officer Standards & Training (POST) training requirements that are applicable to the qualifying equipment.

In addition, many of the pieces of qualifying equipment possessed by the Palo Alto Police Department are specifically designed for the safe resolution of critical incidents, as opposed to everyday routine patrol deployment; as such, some are used exclusively by members of the highly-trained PAPD Crisis Response Unit (which includes the Special Weapons & Tactics Team and the Crisis Negotiation Team), who receive additional specialized training in the use of the equipment.

Of note, several pieces of qualifying equipment are designed to be:

  • Alternatives to the use of deadly force (e.g., less lethal munitions and chemical agents)
  • Means of de-escalation (e.g., the long-range acoustic device)
  • Means of gathering information without jeopardizing the safety of officers, bystanders, and criminal suspects (e.g. an unmanned aerial vehicle or robot, neither of which are possessed by the Palo Alto Police Department but that may be used by a partner law enforcement agency to safely resolve a critical incident during a mutual aid event)

As described in the proposed policy, the pieces of qualifying equipment currently possessed by the Palo Alto Police Department are as follows:

  • Command and control vehicle (the Mobile Emergency Operations Center, or MEOC, which serves as a mobile command post at critical incidents, disasters, or special events, as well as a back-up 9–1–1 dispatch center in the event the City’s main dispatch center is compromised or unavailable; the MEOC is most typically operated by the City’s Office of Emergency Services)
  • Less lethal munitions and chemical agents (available to all properly-certified sworn officers to provide less lethal use of force options to safely effectuate arrests of criminal suspects in limited situations).
  • Diversionary devices (used exclusively by members of the Department’s SWAT team who have received specialized additional training; the equipment creates an auditory and visual diversion to facilitate the operation of tactical teams during a critical public safety incident).
  • Long-range acoustic device (used by property-trained sworn personnel to facilitate communication with subjects from a safe distance).
  • One sniper rifle with associated ammunition (used exclusively by members of the Department’s SWAT team who have received specialized additional training). It should be noted that, while not covered by AB 481, all properly-certified patrol officers carry standard-issue AR-15 patrol rifles that are carried locked in patrol vehicles. In both cases, rifles allow sworn officers to address threats with greater precision at a greater distance.

The proposed policy does not include a request to acquire any new “military equipment.” It simply describes types of equipment already in the Police Department’s possession. It also lists a few pieces of specialized equipment possessed by other local law enforcement agencies that may be used to safely resolve a critical incident in Palo Alto during a mutual aid event, if the owning law enforcement agency chooses to deploy that type of equipment. AB 481 requires the policy to list not only qualifying equipment owned by the Palo Alto Police Department, but also qualifying equipment reasonably anticipated to be deployed within Palo Alto that may be owned by another police agency (for example, during a 29-hour standoff with a barricaded armed domestic violence suspect in August 2019, qualifying equipment like a robot owned by another police agency was used to bring the incident to a safe conclusion).

Required Timeline & Next Steps

AB 481 requires every local law enforcement agency in California to post its proposed military equipment use policy no later than May 1, 2022. The law also requires at least a 30-day opportunity for public comment on the proposed policy, prior to the City Council discussing the proposed policy.

If City Council votes to approve the policy, the Palo Alto Police Department will continue to have access to each of its existing pieces of qualifying equipment, and all of the corresponding policies and procedures surrounding its use would remain in effect. If City Council votes not to approve the policy, the Palo Alto Police Department will cease the use of all qualifying equipment and Department would have to redesign policies and procedures and change the way operations are conducted during critical public safety incidents. This could negatively impact the Police Department’s ability to effectively respond to and safely resolve these incidents.

Additionally, the Palo Alto Police Department would produce an annual report as required by AB 481 to discuss any actual deployments or use of the equipment, and to obtain authorization from the City Council to continue its use. The approved policy would be incorporated into the Police Department’s Policy Manual, which is updated every quarter and viewable online on the Policy Manual page of the Department’s website.

As part of the state law and in response to the posting of the draft policy for public input, the Department has established a web input form for community feedback. The input gained will be shared with the City Council in advance of their consideration of the draft policy.

For the draft policy and web input form, go to www.cityofpaloalto.org/papdequipment.

More Online Resources

Go here for the Police Department website.

Go here for the PAPD Public Information Portal.

Go here for the PAPD Police Report Log.

Go here for the PAPD’s new Police Calls for Service Interactive Map.

Go here to file a commendation for a Department employee and go here to file a complaint on a Department employee or police officer.

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Official communications from the City of Palo Alto. Connect and join the conversation on issues of interest to our community.

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City of Palo Alto

City of Palo Alto

Official communications from the City of Palo Alto. Connect about issues of interest to our community. Follow us on social media-www.cityofpaloalto.org/connect

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