City Council scheduled to vote on whether LBPD can use military equipment

LBPD SWAT officers searching for a car burglary suspect near Stephens Middle School on March 17, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

By Anthony Pignataro, Long Beach Post

The City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday, Oct. 4 on the Long Beach Police Department’s new policy for using equipment that was originally designed for the military.

While the LBPD has used military-grade equipment for years, council approval is now required by AB 481, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in September 2021.

The law requires every law enforcement agency in the state to make public an annual inventory of any and all equipment it uses that was originally designed for the military along with its policy for using the equipment. To continue using the equipment, those documents must now gain approval from the department’s governing body—in this case, the City Council.

The LBPD will use these weapons and equipment “in accordance with State and federal laws to protect life and property, and to serve all people with respect, dignity, and in a constitutional manner,” according to a staff report from LBPD Chief Wally Hebeish. The report also notes that the department has not acquired any military equipment from the Department of Defense’s Law Enforcement Support Program “in recent years.”

The LBPD’s inventory shows the department already has—among other items—three armored trucks, several drones and robots, and 125 high-powered rifles meant to be used in various situations, such as confronting hostile suspects at a distance or allowing SWAT officers to fire sniper rounds from afar.

Two of the most powerful weapons listed in the LBPD inventory are a Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle—intended to be used to stop a moving vehicle when no other options are available—and two FN America M240B 7.62x51mm NATO rifles, which are “medium machine guns” primarily used by U.S. soldiers in battlefields like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the manufacturer.

The LBPD acquired the weapons to be used in especially dangerous and extreme events such as acts of terrorism, according to an LBPD spokesperson.

Just four SWAT officers are trained and certified to use the Barrett rifle and FN America guns, according to the LBPD. None of them have yet been used in action, according to the LBPD.

The inventory also includes a detailed accounting of “less-lethal rounds,” like 40-millimeter foam projectiles, that the LBPD used extensively during the 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd. One journalist was hit in the neck by such a round and required treatment at a hospital.

The LBPD has a policy prohibiting “bias-based policing practices” and “racial profiling,” Hebeish added in the report on how the equipment is used.

For James Suazo of the community advocacy nonprofit Long Beach Forward, such assurances ring hollow. In July, Suazo said weapons like the less-lethal projectiles have historically been used against protesters and communities of color. He also hoped that the Council would have a robust discussion about the policy and inventory and not simply approve it without comment.

The council’s vote was originally scheduled to take place July 5, but City Council members agreed to delay it because just a few days before the meeting the police department added an item to the inventory, which the department first released back in May, according to City Attorney Charles Parkin.

On June 29, the LBPD added the Strongwatch Mobile Video Surveillance system. Also called “Freedom On-The-Move,” it’s basically a sophisticated camera mounted in the bed of a GMC Sierra pickup truck.

The system is capable of live-streaming video to a command center so police can “monitor a situation in real time and coordinate responses to public safety threats,” according to the LBPD’s revised inventory. The surveillance system was reportedly used to monitor a Black Lives Matter Long Beach protest march in July 2020.

The Los Angeles City Council approved the LAPD’s military equipment police and inventory in August by a 9-3 vote.

In 2021, the ACLU released a national accounting of military equipment held by police departments. It found that departments across the country possess more than 60,000 military-style rifles and 1,500 combat vehicles and tanks.

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