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'Our streets are not warzones' | California lawmaker crafts bill to regulate police use of military gear

Assembly Bill 481, would compel police departments to be approved before buying or receiving funds to buy military equipment like armored cars and unmanned aircraft.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A California lawmaker has introduced a new bill that aims to regulate the ability of local police departments to buy military equipment or to even seek the funds to purchase that equipment.

If approved, Assemblymember David Chiu’s (D - San Francisco) bill, Assembly Bill 481, would compel police departments across the state of California to seek approval through their local governing bodies before they could acquire that equipment.

“This past summer we saw the use of military equipment at largely peaceful protests – equipment that made a lot of folks uncomfortable and questioned the relationship between police departments and the communities they serve,” Chiu said.

“Military equipment” as defined in AB 481 includes manned and unmanned aircrafts, wheeled armored and tactical vehicles, bayonets and long knives, firearms or ammunition of .50 caliber or greater, explosives, riot gear including batons, helmets, and shields, and long-range acoustic devices.

The bill, according to Chiu, would not outright restrict any particular kind of equipment but would instead require transparency from local law enforcement to outline what kind of equipment they plan to use and for what purposes.

“Nothing in this bill prohibits any local police department from obtaining that equipment. All we’re saying is before you procure that equipment, you need to go through a public process and get approval from a governing board that governs both the type of equipment that is authorized and the uses for that equipment,” Chiu said.

As for the equipment local police departments already possess, Chiu said the bill would require them to have a use policy in place that outlines for what purposes and situations that equipment would be deployed.

“We don’t have a lot of information right now on what type of equipment local agencies have at their dispersal, but we certainly saw this past summer an alarming range of equipment when police are launching tear gas from military grenade launchers at peaceful protestors or shooting rubber bullets from armored vehicles at unarmed citizens,” Chiu said.

The bill is expected to be considered in its first policy committee in late March or early April, according to Chiu.

“We just want to make sure that there is local oversight and that there is a public and transparent process for the procurement of that equipment,” Chiu said. 

“From my perspective, I think the public has a right to know when and why police believe they need to use military-caliber equipment, especially when public dollars are at stake,” he added.

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