A handful of cities across Orange County have started to publicly review local police departments’ equipment and weapon inventories, including armored cars and 40 millimeter launchers that shoot gas and rubber rounds.

The public accounting of assault rifles, flashbangs, aerial drones and specialty shotgun rounds stems from a new state law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September.

The review requires local police departments across California to publicly list all the military grade equipment and weapons they own, as well as ask for permission from their city council members a month in advance before buying more.

It also requires disclosure of drones, firearms of .50 caliber or greater, as well as battering rams and certain vehicles like armored cars, according to state law.

So far, most city councils who’ve reviewed their police departments inventories of weapons and gear haven’t asked many questions or debated the need for the equipment.

Under the law, which went into effect on Jan. 1, city officials must also adopt policies outlining when the equipment can be used. 

Police and sheriff departments have until May 1 to start seeking approval of these policies and officials in some cities in Orange County have already initially approved their policies like Seal Beach.

Other cities like Brea started moving forward with these policies this week.

Brea City Councilmember Steven Vargas called the law a “bait and switch” at the Tuesday city council meeting and said it was initially meant for gear left over from Afghanistan and Iraq that was acquired by police departments, but changed to include other weapons as well.

“It’s really kind of an overreach by the state government to really embarrass our police departments,” Vargas said.

But groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have criticized police use of military equipment and its use during protests. The civil rights group said the law will bring more transparency and public accountability to law enforcement.

[Read: Does Your Local Police Department Need A Military-Grade Armored Truck?]

In an interview last week, ACLU attorney Eva Bitran said police officers are becoming increasingly militarized and taxpayers deserve to know what kind of weapons and equipment their police departments have on hand. 

“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.“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

Brea

Brea council members, Tuesday, unanimously voted to introduce an ordinance adopting their police department’s military equipment use policy.

Brea’s inventory includes: an armored vehicle owned by the Fullerton police department, pepperball launchers, tear gas and flash bang grenades as well as a variety of specialized firearms and assault rifles.

This includes 60 Daniel Defense M4 V7 guns, an AR15 style firearm.

At the public hearing on Tuesday, one Brea resident asked for clarification on why the police department needed all those rifles.

Vargas said there was about one rifle for each police officer employed.

Council member Marty Simonoff, a former Huntington Park police officer, pointed to the North Hollywood shootout in 1997 which left about a dozen officers wounded after a 44 minute gun battle between two gunmen with body armor and AK47s against police outside a Bank of America.

It ended with both gunmen dead on the street – the only deaths in the shootout.

“The officers were under armed and the suspects were better armed,” Simonoff said. “Part of the reason why we’re equipped the way we are is in case anything like that, wherever to occur, we would be able to address those types of issues.”

To view Brea’s full policy and military inventory, click here.

Brea police Capt. Dave Dickinson told city council members on Tuesday that the equipment is used for specific, rare circumstances.

“In 2021, we had over 16,000 Police contacts and calls for service in dealing with the public. In the past 12 months, we’ve had two instances of use of this equipment,” he said, adding that the armored car and bean bag rounds were used during that time.

Placentia 

The Placentia City Council also approved the equipment use policy with minimal discussion Tuesday night.

Placentia’s inventory report lists all the police-owned weapons that can be classified as military equipment, including the city’s aerial drones, 10 Colt AR15 firearms and a BearCat armored vehicle.

The five police drones are battery powered, remote operated unmanned aerial vehicles that can stream a live view feed. These devices are able to record video with approximately 25 minutes of flight time.

“These are best practice, public safety items, de-escalation tools, that we use in police work and that we’ve been using in public safety for many years,” police chief Brad Butts told council members.

Councilmember Chad Wanke said revealing this information may not be beneficial.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we actually have to disclose this stuff, quite frankly, but I appreciate the fact that we seem well equipped,” Wanke said at the meeting.

Seal Beach

Seal Beach City Council members earlier this month also unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance on their police department’s military equipment inventory. 

Seal Beach Police have drones, 51 AR15 style rifles, an armored vehicle, and flashbang grenades in their inventory.

Click here to view the full policy and inventory.

Police Chief Phillip Gonshak told council members the equipment is rarely used. 

“There’s not a single item one of these items that we are in possession of that are used in abundance. These items are used on a basis-need only and every purchase we make is an absolute necessity. So before we make another purchase … the request will be made out of a need rather than abundance,” Gonshak told Seal Beach council members. 

Gonshak also noted the increased focus on police inventories stemming from recent protests and police reform efforts.

“I just want to let everyone know that I trust the chief, without question, without doubt in my mind that he would not abuse in any way – that he would not order this kind of equipment if he felt that it was something we didn’t need to have,” Councilwoman Sandra Massa-Lavitt said during Tuesday’s meeting. 

She also asked for some details about a long-range speaker, expressing concerns that it could be used as a microphone to pick up people’s conversations. 

“This is not a listening device and anytime we actually need to implement or throw in a listening device into a residence, we need a search warrant – so this is not one of them,” Gonshak responded.

Fullerton 

Fullerton City Council members approved their police department’s list of equipment and weapons without any discussion at their Tuesday meeting. 

Sgt. Michael McCaskill told council members that the department doesn’t have any weapons that fire .50 caliber rounds or greater, except for standard issue shotguns. 

City staff and McCaskill produced a detailed inventory of what equipment and weapons the Fullerton Police Department has on hand. 

View the complete list here. 

Fullerton police also have an armored car capable of withstanding .50 caliber rounds, known as the BearCat, which is shared with nearby police departments. 

McCaskill also said the city doesn’t participate in either of the two federal programs that allow police agencies to purchase surplus military equipment. 

“For weapons we do have specialized firearms and ammunition of less than .50 caliber, which include our AR-15s that all patrol officers are assigned,” McCaskill told council members Tuesday.

According to the inventory, the department has 160 AR-15s on hand and each officer is required to complete an initial 20-hour training course, along with bi-annual range tests and training.

Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.