Orange County residents are about to get their first open look at all the military grade equipment their local police departments have on hand in a public accounting of equipment stemming from a new state law.
“We’ve seen police departments deploy tanks, sound cannons, high capacity munition – we’ve seen these law enforcement organizations use military equipment deployed in our communities in response to protest,” said Eva Bitran, an ACLU of Southern California attorney.
Under the new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last September, California police departments must divulge all the equipment dubbed “military grade” that’s already purchased – and ask for permission from their respective city council at least 30 days in advance before they make any future purchases according to the legislation.
The law also requires local governing bodies, such as cities, to adopt a policy for the equipment’s use.
“Law enforcement is treating the population it’s supposed to keep safe as enemy combatants, when using things like tanks and armored vehicles,” Bitran said.
For example, a BearCat armored vehicle greeted protesters throwing fireworks and projectiles at police in riot gear in Santa Ana amid summer 2020 demonstrations nationwide and across Orange County over the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Some local law enforcement officials told Voice of OC the new measures could negatively impact their relationships with residents who don’t understand how the disclosed equipment is used.
Police departments have to start the process of implementing those new policies by the end of May.
In an interview with Voice of OC, Westminster Police Chief Darin Lenyi said while the law was created with good intention and provides more transparency, it “creates a lot of work for us when we could be doing other things,” and lacks context on what the equipment is and what it’s used for.
Lenyi raised concerns that the reports could lead to equipment being taken away from the department stemming from misunderstanding how the equipment is used and the requirement that they use the manufacturer’s definition of the equipment in their reports.
“For example the grenade, it’s a flashbang. But the manufacturer lists it as a grenade,” Lenyi said. “But when the average person says, ‘oh, cops are throwing grenades,’ no, we’re not blowing people up. But we’re stunning them.”
Asked about this, Bitran said police departments are “free to provide context around the equipment they have or are seeking if they feel it’s important for the public to know.”
“If they think a grenade is important to have, I don’t see why they wouldn’t be able to tell the public why that’s true and it’s up to them whether or not they want to take the additional workload. No one’s forcing anyone to buy a tank and then write a report on it,” Bitran said.
Now there’s an “external as well as an internal justification process for it,” Bitran said. “We want them to think through whether this is a decision they should take.”
Consider the “astronomical costs of having military equipment,” Bitran said, “When in fact we could divert this money to initiatives that actually keep us safe, community or education or housing … there’s no end to community based programs that would be a better use of these funds.”
“These are public funds, and as a component of government, they have a duty to provide public accounting for what they’re doing with those funds and why. Yeah it’s more work, but it comes with the territory,” Bitran said.
But Lenyi said “there’s other ways to do transparency.”
“Everything we buy is public, everything over a certain dollar amount goes to council, and we do have those conversations, it’s published in our budget annually,” Lenyi said.
He added people can find more information about equipment use through the department’s biannual community police academies, encouraging critics of the department to enroll in the program, and said the reason they have so much equipment is because they need to be prepared for any situation.
“We’ve realized in law enforcement that we have to anticipate for the unanticipated, so we have things like rifles, and (armored cars), and snipers and things like that. There’s a segment that wants to make that difficult for us to obtain, retain and use,” Lenyi said. “I think they would change their mind if they or one of their loved ones would be victimized.”
Bitran said the disclosure law doesn’t prevent police agencies from buying the equipment.
“What the bill does is, it discloses – it’s only requiring police to tell you what they have,” she said, adding the bill doesn’t prevent equipment purchases; rather, it requires local governments to tie down its purpose to specified uses.
To read the full disclosure list released by the City of Westminster, click here.
Voice of OC reviewed the military equipment inventories of some of the larger police departments in Orange County and the OC Sheriffs, who patrol 13 of the county’s cities and unincorporated areas.
As the largest department, the sheriffs also had the largest amount of military grade equipment, over $3.3 million worth according to the disclosures submitted to the county board of supervisors in March.
The two most expensive items were the department’s rifles and its armored cars.
Of the department’s 668 AR-15 designated rifles, 112 were donated to the department, but the rest came out to a price tag of $1.1 million, with annual maintenance costs of $66,000 and roughly $200,000 of ammunition each year.
Three of the department’s four armored cars were purchased with their own funds, while one was purchased with an Urban Area Security Initiative Grant from the Department of Homeland Security.
The grants are designed to aid departments in responding to “acts of terrorism and other threats,” according to the department’s website.
To view the sheriffs’ full disclosure, click here.
The department doesn’t have rules for when and how they’ll approach the Orange County Supervisors for purchasing military equipment, but a discussion on the issue is required within the next two months.
Of the cities who responded to requests for an inventory list by Voice of OC, Irvine had the largest drone fleet out of any city, with 32 drones on hand, in addition to a mobile command vehicle to move them throughout the city at a total cost of over $455,000.
To view the city’s full disclosure, click here.
While the city was originally set to discuss the issue this upcoming Tuesday, it was delayed to their April 26 meeting in a revised agenda released last Thursday.
As the second-largest city in Orange County, Santa Ana has the most military equipment, and they managed to pick up a big chunk of it for free.
Both the city’s armored cars and their loudspeaker system were purchased using the same Homeland Security grants the sheriffs used, granting the department over a $1 million worth of equipment for free.
To review the rest of their listed equipment, click here.
Seal Beach City Council members were slated to take up this very issue on Tuesday night, to discuss equipment the department has already in its inventory and what their future process looks like.
To access the city’s agenda and their list of equipment, click here.
Huntington Beach and Anaheim
The cities Huntington Beach and Anaheim refused to release any information on their inventory, saying it would be released in another month for their city councils’ discussion in May.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated the Irvine Police Department did not list any armored vehicles. The department’s single armored vehicle was listed, but under the SWAT report and not the Patrol report. We regret the error.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.