Many city council members across Orange County have quietly approved policies regarding their police department’s military equipment stockpiles this past month to comply with a new state law.

Santa Ana City Council members had some tough questions about the need and use of the weapons and gear like flashbang grenades and AR-15 style rifles at their meeting last week.

While a split council ended up voting in favor of keeping the inventory and use policies, several council members publicly raised concerns about how the equipment is used and questioned the need for some of the military style weapons.

It’s different to Huntington Beach City Council members’ approach, where they publicly adopted the inventory and policies last week after privately asking police questions about the equipment at briefings.

And a stark contrast to officials in cities like Fullerton where council members approved their policy without discussion last month.

More cities are going over their policies this week too.

Orange City Council members brought up their policy at their city council meeting Tuesday. 

Westminster council members are expected to vote on and finalize their policy at their meeting tonight.

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 equipment and weapons they own deemed by the state to be military grade, as well as ask for permission from their city council members a month in advance before buying more. 

It also applies to sheriff departments and the boards of supervisors who oversee them. 

Civil rights groups like the ACLU support the law, saying it will bring more transparency and accountability to police departments amid uneasy relationships large swaths of residents have with their local police departments.

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

Protesters gather to protest the killing of George Floyd in Santa Ana on May 30, 2020. Credit: JOSE HERNANDEZ, Voice of OC

During last Tuesday’s Santa Ana City Council meeting, Councilman Jonathan Ryan Hernandez had a series of questions about the police department’s military style equipment, like armored cars, 40 mm projectile launchers, tear gas and other tactical gear. 

Like other police officials throughout OC, Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin said the North Hollywood shootout changed everything and forced departments to scale up their armories.  

“Let me take you back to 1997 and the North Hollywood shootout,” Valentin told Hernandez. “Multiple police officers pinned down with revolvers, not able to protect themselves or the community.” 

He added that the department is “very cognizant of equipment acquisition and it has to have a defensible purpose.” 

[Read: Orange County Cities Start Disclosing What Kinds of Military Equipment Are Used By Local Police]

Hernandez questioned the need for some of the weapons and equipment.

“I do feel that there are a number of items that we have here, chief, of equipment that is doing more harm than good. I think the militarization of police, it doesn’t reduce crime nor does it contribute to making the perception of officer safety that much more safe,” he said.

The department has 107 AR-15 style rifles issued to patrol officers, 35 similar rifles for SWAT officers, two armored vehicles and 85 launchers that fire an array of 40 mm “less-lethal” rounds like foam projectiles.

Click here to read the department’s inventory and use policies.

Valentin said the department stopped participating in a federal program that essentially gave police departments military surplus gear for free after evaluating the “most recent era of civil unrest,” adding that the department gave back the old surplus equipment and is currently has what other police departments typically use.

“My perspective is that if we need a piece of equipment, then I am to come to the city manager or to this council and ask for that piece of equipment. No matter what it is,” Valentin said. 

Meanwhile, Hernandez questioned the effectiveness of the military grade weapons and gear police officers have. 

“Why do we see our residents as someone not worth helping — that we have to enter the communities militarized this way,” he said. “What message are we trying to send to neighborhoods when we enter a crime scene and treat it like a warzone?”

Hernandez also recounted the story of his cousin, Brandon Lopez, who was shot in and killed by Anaheim police officers last September after a car chase ended in Santa Ana. Lopez was suspected of armed robberies when Anaheim police officers spotted him and chased him into the city. 

“There were street closures at multiple different precincts, there were helicopters, there were spotlights, there was two different police departments — Anaheim PD, Santa Ana PD,” Hernandez said. ”There were police dogs, there was tear gas, there was concussion grenades, then there were pistols and rifles. But what resulted was an unarmed man still getting killed by police, shot dead 22 times.” 

Hernandez witnessed the shooting. 

[Read: Santa Ana Councilman Watches Police Kill Cousin He Said Had Mental Health Crisis]

“There were two different departments there — nobody that day got it right. But everything could’ve went right,” he said. 

[Read: Two Cities Face Fallout From Police Killing of A Santa Ana Councilman’s Cousin]

Valentin said he couldn’t discuss the shooting because it’s under investigation.

But generally speaking, he said, police officers don’t treat neighborhoods like warzones. 

“The Santa Ana police department does not approach policing from the standpoint of approaching neighborhoods and being overbearing, being aggressive and bringing in military equipment,” Valentin said. “The run of the day response is an officer in a standard uniform, yes they’re armed with a pistol, and none of this elevated tactical equipment. It may be in the vehicle, it may be back at the police station in the event we need it.”

The police chief also said certain levels of clearance are needed from a watch commander or a SWAT commander before some equipment, like armored cars, can be used. 

“Our standard operating procedure is not to deploy these on a regular basis,” Valentin said. “There is no ordinary call out there, because helping someone cross the street could turn into a deadly situation unfortunately.”

Councilwoman Jessie Lopez unsuccessfully tried to ban the armored cars from the police department’s community outreach events “because these are tactical vehicles and not toys.” 

She added, “I do believe that these should be used in emergency situations.” 

Valentin, while noting the armored cars aren’t toys, said the vehicles “are very, very popular with kids and families.” 

Councilman David Penaloza said the displays are not only popular, but a good education tool. 

“Part of it is also about educating the community of our police department and the resources they have,” he said. 

Council members ended up voting 4–2-1 adopting the inventory and policies – while keeping armored cars in public events.

Hernandez and Lopez dissented, while Mayor Vicente Sarmiento was absent. 

Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach City Council Members unanimously approved their police’s military equipment policy last week as well.

Council members said they were given briefings of the equipment and weaponry prior to the meeting where they were able to ask questions regarding the equipment. The briefings were made up of less than a quorum of the city council.

Councilwoman Kim Carr said in a Tuesday phone interview that she asked about the frequency of the equipment’s use, the cost to maintain the weapons as well as who authorizes their use and when is their use appropriate during the briefing she attended with Council members Natalie Moser and Rhonda Bolton.

“I spent probably about 75 to 80 minutes with, going over all of the items, and going out to the lot and looking at the items and asking all of those questions,” she said, adding that the equipment isn’t frequently used.

Councilwoman Natalie Moser said at a May 3 city council meeting that most of the weaponry and equipment in the police’s arsenal is to improve safety for residents and police officers.

“We’re a city that has many large events and it was demonstrated that much of the equipment that we have is there really to help us be prepared in the event that one of those events doesn’t go well and we have had some of those in the last couple of years,” she said.

Moser and other council members said much of the inventory is intended to address situations with less force.

“The theme that I saw and of course, that was echoed by by Miss (Natalie) Moser and Miss (Kim) Carr, too, was that nearly every one of these tools in the toolbox is designed, or I guess the outcome is to is to deescalate lethality,” Councilman Mike Posey said.

Click here to read the department’s inventory and use policy.

Some police officials and city council members have said the labeling of the equipment and weaponry, which includes flashbangs and AR-15 style rifles, that the state is making them disclose as military equipment is a “misnomer.”

“None of this has been acquired from the military, it’s all law enforcement equipment that is in line with best practices. It’s consistent with equipment that is used by similarly sized agencies,” said Huntington Beach Police Chief Eric Parra at the city council meeting.

Parra said that there are procedures in place for when this type of equipment and weaponry is used and that there is also a “stringent” review process for when the equipment is used.

He didn’t provide specifics as to what those procedures are in the meeting but said he personally reviews any deployment of the weaponry to ensure the rules were followed.

Huntington Beach Police Captain Gaute Svendsbo provided a presentation on the weapons and equipment they have and a rundown on their purposes – unlike in Anaheim where that rundown was not given when the policy abruptly came before the city council.

[Read: Armored Vans, Flashbangs and AR-15s: How Strapped is Your Local Police Department?]

The department has 100 flashbang grenades used to distract suspects and only used by the SWAT team during assaults and hostage rescue situations, according to Svendsbo.

They’re also equipped with 125 assault rifles and are looking to purchase 90 more in order to equip every officer with one. The rifles are used to address threats and situations that “exceed the capability of handguns,” the police captain said.

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.

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