City Council to consider LBPD’s new military weapons policy

A Long Beach police train his less leather weapon at the crowed at Pine Avenue and Broadway during a protest of the death of a black man, George Floyd, in Long Beach Sunday, May 31, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

By Anthony Pignataro, Long Beach Post

The Long Beach City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to approve the police department’s use of military weapons and equipment like armored vehicles, machine guns and less-lethal foam projectiles.

The Long Beach Police Department has used military-grade equipment for years, but the City Council’s approval is now required by AB 481, which Governor Gavin Newsom signed in September 2021. The bill mandates 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 then gain approval from the department’s governing body—in this case, the City Council.

The LBPD released its military equipment inventory back in May. It 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 had to be treated at a hospital.

One community activist hoped the City Council wouldn’t simply approve the new policy and inventory as the agenda item recommends.

“Overall, my reaction is extreme disappointment and embarrassment for the city of Long Beach,” said James Suazo of the community advocacy nonprofit Long Beach Forward.

Other cities like Berkeley have seen robust discussions of why the police department might need weapons originally designed for warfare, and still complied with AB 481, Suazo said.

Suazo also noted the high cost of the military equipment. Long Beach, for instance, is considering expanding its homeless outreach teams from two to three, which would cost $500,000, though the city has already spent close to a million dollars on just three Bearcat armored tactical vehicles, according to the LBPD’s inventory.

Suazo also found fault with how the LBPD’s new policy deals with racial equity, saying the portion of the staff report addressing those concerns goes against the spirit and intent of looking at such matters in the first place.

The racial equity reforms passed by the city following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 asked that departments look at new policies like this one through an “equity lens,” which it defines as determining who would be most affected by the new policy, whether the community was sufficiently engaged in the decision-making process, how the policy will help all residents achieve their highest level of health and so forth.

In a staff report on Tuesay’s agenda item, Long Beach Police Chief Wally Hebeish says the police department considered and incorporated the city’s “Equity toolkit.” The military equipment will be used to protect life and property, and “serve all people with respect, dignity and in a constitutional manner,” Hebeish said in the staff report. The LBPD also has a policy prohibiting “bias-based policing practices” and “racial profiling,” Hebeish added in the report.

For Suazo, such assurances rang hollow. He noted that the new policy contains no discussion of how or when the military weapons would be used, though in the past weapons like the less-lethal projectiles have historically been used against protesters and communities of color.

An LBPD spokesperson said that the new policy was written in consultation with the City Attorney’s office, and that the department welcomes community comment by email to Residents can also address the City Council directly when members consider the item at their meeting on Tuesday, July 5.

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