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Militarized Cops Pretend to Fight Terrorists in Oakland

Urban Shield is a 48-hour training exercise for law enforcement agencies held in Northern California. The idea is to prepare the police for future terrorist attacks—but it's really just a bunch of officers playing war games.

Marin County Sheriffs getting briefed on their terror scenario in the 49ers' old locker room at Candlestick Park. All photos by the author

Inside the air-conditioned Emergency Operations Center of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office (ACSO) outside Oakland, California, dozens of law enforcement officers spent the weekend coordinating more than a thousand terrorist attacks. Each attack was scheduled down to the minute. Each attack occurred 35 times.


Masked terrorists stormed the visiting locker room at Candlestick Park during a soccer tournament and took five members of the Filipino National Team hostage in a luxury suite. In nearby South San Francisco, “homegrown jihadists” engaged in an indoor shootout with officers attempting to deliver a search warrant. Elsewhere in the Bay Area, a “militant atheist extremist group” took hostages at a suburban Presbyterian church, “foreign terrorists” hijacked a public bus, and the Golden Gate Bridge was threatened by a terrorist with an IED.

On Saturday afternoon, a giant screen in the middle of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) displayed four livestreams of attacks in progress, including an assault by “a violent homegrown extremist group” in the theater of a local community college. Other areas of the screen displayed a live traffic map of the San Francisco Bay Area, the interface of the ACSO’s command and control software, an NFL game, and the semifinals of the US Open.

Paul Hess, the ACSO’s Emergency Services Supervisor, apologized for the sports. “It is the weekend,” he said.

The EOC was the nerve center of Urban Shield, a 48-hour training exercise for law enforcement agencies that’s been held in and around Oakland for the last eight years. Founded by James Baker, a former assistant sheriff in the ACSO, Urban Shield began in 2007 as a series of training scenarios for SWAT teams. Since then, it has grown into what organizers describe as “a comprehensive, full-scale regional preparedness exercise” that aims to “test regional integrated systems for prevention, protection, response, and recovery in our high-threat, high-density urban area.” The event takes place under the auspices of the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative and is largely funded by the Department of Homeland Security. Because of the DHS money, Urban Shield's training scenarios must include “a nexus to terrorism.”


This year’s Urban Shield, held September from 4 to 8, took place amid increased scrutiny of police militarization in the wake of the overwhelming response to protests against the killing of Michael Brown by local cops in Ferguson, Missouri. On the second day of the conference, Dan Siegel, a former legal adviser to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan who is now running to replace her, publicly criticized the convention, telling local news station KPIX: “Urban Shield is an effort to further militarize police departments in Alameda County, and it is certainly something that we don’t need.” Later that day, while hundreds of protesters rallied against the event, Mayor Quan, who is herself running for re-election, issued a statement announcing that the event “will not be held in Oakland next year.”

The public side of Urban Shield is a two-day trade show at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Oakland—an event filled with the corporations that cater to “anyone who has a gun,” as a salesperson for Safariland described it to me. But away from the convention center, 35 teams of six to eight police officers—mostly from local police departments, but also including some from South Korea, Singapore, Philadelphia, and Texas—compete to see who can best respond to to 31 different terrorist or emergency scenarios at locations around the Bay Area. The teams rotate through the scenarios for 48 hours with just one scheduled 30-minute nap (on bunk beds in cells at the San Francisco County Jail).


Map of scenarios from the Emergency Operations Center

Inside the EOC, the various departments of the ACSO ran Urban Shield as if it were itself an emergency incident. The incident commanders tested new software meant to help law enforcement agencies coordinate during an emergency. The IT team was prepared to keep communications going even if telecommunications went down. A logistical team tracked delivery of AAA batteries and bottled water to sites using the same protocol they would during a mass casualty event.

The Public Information Office, which would be charged with disseminating updates to the media during an emergency, was one department without a clear corollary. Inside, two staffers meticulously collected and tracked the scores that teams achieved on their exercises.

The question of whether Urban Shield is an essential training experience worth a significant investment of taxpayer money or a chance for grown men to run around and play war games was bubbling beneath the surface the whole time. Paul Hess, the ACSO Emergency Services Supervisor who gave me and a group of nine other journalists and corporate sponsors a tour, boasted that Urban Shield was the “largest terrorist field response anywhere in the country.” However, he went on to say, “Really what we’re building here is camaraderie. How often do we get to get into the field and exchange and play with other agencies?”


Sean League, an IT staffer with the ACSO, boasted that during the Boston Marathon bombing, law enforcement “were able to save a lot of lives because of the training at Urban Shield,” moments after he greeted a representative from Samsung by saying, “We have some of your toys out there.”

Meanwhile, in a room at the rear of the EOC, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) was gathering intelligence and monitoring social media. It’s a role the fusion center would play during a real terrorist attack, but in this case the focus was different. On a white board in the NCRIC’s room were two pieces of “intelligence”: the text of a tweet from a user I recognized as one of my Twitter followers (an anonymous Oakland activist, as best I can tell) and a printed copy of the document that tweet linked to—a version of the schedule of Urban Shield exercises that had been leaked to IndyBay, a local independent news site.

The same document had been handed out at the protest against Urban Shield held Friday, the day before I toured the EOC. The demonstration condemned the militarization of the police, which activists say has “created a culture of surveillance and repression targeting poor communities of color.”

When I asked Paul Hess why the tweet was written out on the white board, he told me that he preferred I not mention that I’d seen it. When I asked him whether the NCRIC was monitoring the protests against Urban Shield, he said, “Absolutely.”


Marin County Sheriffs raid a luxury box full of "terrorists" at Candlestick Park

While Urban Shield may be premised on local law enforcement’s “nexus to terrorism,” the Urban Shield Vendor Show is all about the nexus to profit. Inside the Oakland Convention Center, dozens of military turned law enforcement contractors showed off their wares.

The happiest guys in the room were showcasing the personal digital recording devices (PDRDs) that are being touted as a solution to police brutality in the wake of Ferguson. Representatives from VieVu, which was the first company to put cameras on a police department (Oakland), and Verizon, which is pushing a streaming body camera, both said they’ve seen much more interest since Ferguson.

Some vendors bragged that their products were designed for the kind of terrorist attacks for which Urban Shield claims to prepare police. Phil Li from iRobot, maker of the Roomba, said that while most of his company’s security robots are used by the military, the 510 PacBot was the “first robot on the scene” when police in Watertown, Massachusetts, were confronting the Tsarnaev brothers after the Boston Marathon bombing. Li gave me a stress ball hand grenade stamped with the brand “iRobot.”

Others struggled to come up with a reason for law enforcement agencies to have military-grade gear. A vendor with thermal imaging equipment posited that it could be used by “a patrol officer looking for someone who shouldn’t be in the park after dark.”


A representative from a company selling LRADs (long-range acoustic devices) suggested they could be useful during “hostage negotiations.” But I overheard another LRAD salesman joke about its use during protests: “It can give you a legal basis if you need to escalate force,” he said. “They used this at G-20.” He demonstrated the LRAD’s pre-recorded audio messages in English and Spanish: “Do not move. Put your hands on your head and get down on your knees.”

Jeremy Johnson, Tactical Vehicle Specialist and Manager of International Operations at the Armored Group LLC, was showing off his Ballistic Armored Tactical Transport (BATT) at a spot in the room set up for team photos. With wheels nearly as tall as I am and gun ports made “so you can get a teargas launcher out,” the BATT resembles the military-issued Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs) recently seen on the streets of Ferguson. However, Johnson says, “I designed this structure specifically for law enforcement. It had nothing to do with the military.”

Johnson would not disclose which law enforcement agencies have purchased armored vehicles from his company, but says he believes the protests in Ferguson were an example of why a local police department might need one. “Did it get to the situation where it [a BATT] was probably needed? Yeah, it probably did, when bottles were thrown and things like that,” he said. “These guys [law enforcement] don’t want to get hit with that stuff. These guys have people to go home to just like you and me.”


Asked about the imposing appearance of the vehicles, Johnson said, “Is there a reason some of these are designed to look scary? To some degree, yeah. Because when they are pulled up you want it to make a point.”

A Ballistic Armored Tactical Transport vehicle

The most frightening technology at Urban Shield comes in much more innocuous packaging. The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate displayed a rapid DNA-testing machine it developed with IntegenX. According to Christopher Miles, a Biometrics Program Manager with DHS, the machine can produce a unique DNA identification within 90 minutes by mapping 13 specific DNA locations. Miles stressed that DHS was not yet using the technology and that its initial use would be limited to verifying family relationships in refugee camps abroad. But, he said, the technology was co-funded by the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense, and he could foresee it being used by law enforcement in the future.

“It’s simple enough for a police officer to run it,” he said.

On Friday afternoon, I was interviewing the public information officer for ACSO, Sergeant J. D. Nelson, just as protesters were arriving outside the hotel. Nelson seemed to be going out of his way to appear unconcerned and welcoming. “It’s a peaceful protest. That’s OK,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with it. You see us out there in riot gear?”


ACSO did not, in fact, suit up in riot gear. Instead, a handful of uniformed officers stood behind orange plastic barricades, observing the protest alongside a dozen or so Urban Shield participants. About 300 protesters gathered across the street from the Marriott, carrying signs reading: “Stop all activities related to Urban Shield/ Stop killing kids”; “Stop police terror”; and “Oakland lives are not video game targets.” Leaders of the coalition organizing opposition to Urban Shield gave brief speeches.

“They are trained to treat us like enemy combatants,” said Michael Walker, co-chair of the ONYX Organizing Committee, a black community group in Oakland.

“The only reason this sort of thing exists is to keep us down,” said Sanyika Bryant of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an organization that has become well known for its research finding that an extrajudicial killing of a black person occurs in the United States every 28 hours.

“We know that with all of that Department of Homeland Security funding—none of that safety is for those of us who are here today,” said Tara Tabassi of the War Resister’s League.

About an hour after the protest began, another hundred or so protesters arrived, trailed by dozens of Oakland police. The newcomers were, in Oakland protest culture parlance, “the families,” and they had marched to the Marriott from a park about a mile and a half away. “The families” are the relatives of Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford, James Earl Rivera Jr., Mario Romero, and Andy Lopez, some of the black and Latino men and boys who have been shot and killed by Northern California police in recent years.


Protesters outside the convention

Everyone at Urban Shield has a vested interest in constructing a narrative of fear. The corporations use the fear of terrorism to sell equipment to police. Law enforcement agencies use the fear of terrorism to justify buying and using that equipment against the citizenry. The national security state uses the fear of terrorism to keep tabs on local activists.

What the organizers of Urban Shield don’t want to admit is that the most pressing fear felt by the police is fear of the people they’re supposed to protect. When I asked Sergeant Nelson about the militarization of the police and the military-grade equipment on display at Urban Shield, he responded:

"Forty years ago, you had a revolver, and there was an option to wear a bulletproof vest. Now I wouldn't dream of going out there without a bulletproof vest. There's so many guns out there. There's so many violent people. Kids nowadays, it's crazy. The amount of guns and serious weapons people have. I'm not talking like pea shooters. You get these calls in Oakland, you hear rapid gunfire. They've got powerful, powerful weapons. So to say that you don't want to have any kind of equipment to protect themselves. I understand what they're saying, but until people stop going into malls and shooting people, and schools, and churches and airports and all these terrible things that happen, how can you say, Well, let's not have that?"

Nelson is not describing anything that contains a “nexus to terrorism.” He’s describing urban crime—crime that has been steadily declining since it peaked 40 years ago, in the 1970s.

Oscar Grant was shot once in the back while he was lying on the ground. Alan Blueford was shot three times in the chest. James Earl Rivera Jr. was shot 19 times by two police officers. Mario Romero was shot 31 times. Andy Lopez was shot seven times. None of them were armed, although Andy Lopez, who was 13 years old, was holding a toy gun.

Michael Brown was shot six times. According to multiple eyewitnesses, he was holding his hands up in the air.

“In Ferguson, I’m sure that there are very few people saying, ‘Man, we should get these guys [police] less training,’" said Sergeant Nelson. “They’re saying, ‘We need more training.’ And we’re giving people more training.”

I asked Nelson whether Urban Shield offered any training in de-escalation tactics or ending a situation without gunfire. The answer was no. “As far as talking your way out of this or that,” he said, “that’s not what we’re training for today or tomorrow.”

The next day I sat in a soon-to-be-demolished luxury suite at Candlestick Park and waited for the Marin County Sheriffs team to take out three terrorists and rescue five hostages in the suite next door. The attack, heralded by the sound of a sniper round taking out a terrorist standing by the window, was over in minutes amid a flurry of shouts and shots. When it was over, most of the role players were marked with paint. The “good guys” were shooting yellow paint pellets, and the “bad guys” were shooting green. I couldn’t tell one from the other.

“A penalty of ten points will be imposed against a team if any member demonstrates an excessive use of marking rounds (fire control and intentional improper targeting of body parts, i.e., headshots),” reads the Urban Shield Exercise Plane. “Ten points will also be deducted for friendly fire and each hostage shot.”

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