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Urban Shield: Training or militarization for first responders?

For the past eight years, one weekend in late summer brings first responders from across the country and around the world -- firemen, medics, SWAT teams and police officers --  to Alameda County for Urban Shield, one of the largest law enforcement training exercises in the country.

Urban Shield throws these first responders into simulated scenarios out of the direst headlines: terrorist attacks, downed planes, and catastrophic natural disasters. The situations are all mock events, complete with actors and even stage makeup, but these trained, professional first responders treat them as if they are real.

The Alameda County Sheriffs’ Office, which runs the event, says it is first-hand training for our worst nightmares. But the event is also under attack, for being a model for militarization of the police. Critics say Urban Shield does not just help first responders prepare for the worst; they claim it is also training law enforcement for war against citizens.

Scenarios and Simulations

If you spend any time around Urban Shield, there is one word you hear a lot: scenario.


Credit Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks
Urban Shield training exercise at Moffett Field

“The scenario today is: a terrorist event happens, here at Moffett Field, with repercussions around the entire Bay Area,” says Corinne Bartshire. Bartshire is with the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative, an organization funded by the federal government to coordinate homeland security in the region.

Bartshire is explaining why Moffett Federal Field in the South Bay looks today like a scene out of a Hollywood summer blockbuster -- with a mock terrorist event, and a real SWAT team. But she’s keeping quiet about the details.

“I don’t know what you are connected to – I don’t want to spoil any secrets,” she says jokingly.

About a dozen men wearing what look like gas masks and army fatigues are creeping along a line of caution tape. They are an actual SWAT team from Monterey County. The men turn the corner and enter into one of the ramshackle buildings, a dusty old barracks, that seems long-abandoned. They have no idea what’s going to happen inside.

That, in fact, is the point: to put them through their paces by simulating a real attack. Inside, mock terrorists armed with fake guns lie in wait with mock hostages. The SWAT team has to figure out who is who, rescue the innocent, and capture -- or shoot -- the guilty.

Inside the building, orders are yelled. Someone shouts out that the scenario is active. Then, the sound of screams and the rat-a-tat of gunfire can be heard.

About fifteen long minutes later the SWAT team emerges from the building, weapons drawn, with fake terrorists in handcuffs. They have completed this part of the training, but it’s not over yet. This particular scenario is also testing how the police interact with the media, and how well they can control the information that spreads like wildfire in the mock cyberspace Urban Shield has created.

Ethan Baker played a mock terrorist who was killed during the raid. Now, he’s filming a video manifesto, set to be released after his “death.” 

“Brothers,” Baker says, looking directly into the camera. “Today is the day for action, it is the day of rage today. We take out our grievances on those that have impressed them upon us. We will strike down upon you, we will be back.”

Baker laughs at the strange role he is playing: “This will end up on the internet. I’ll be a terrorist forever.” But he has no need to worry -- the fake “twitter” and “facebook” this video are posted to are part of a closed system.

Ironically, Baker’s real job is in anti-terrorism. Still, he says playing a mock terrorist conjured up some very honest adrenaline.

“The weapons are heavy,” Baker says. “They feel real. Everything feels real. You’re in a dirty old building, the team came in -- after they shot me, threw me down, it’s bird poop in there. You know your face is in bird poop, you’re lying there – everything’s real except you’re not bleeding.”

Does Urban Shield = Police Militarization?

Simulations like this are taking place at satellite locations across the Bay Area including the Oakland airport, local community colleges, and the Golden Gate Bridge.  

While those scenarios play out, the Oakland convention center at the downtown Marriott Hotel is playing host to the Urban Shield trade show. SWAT teams and first responders roam through aisles packed with vendors selling everything from weapons to riot gear.

Outside of the hotel on Broadway, protesters are gathering, taking over the street. They are here 

Credit Sandhya Dirks
Protestors outside of the Urban Shield trade show

with a firm message: Stop Urban Shield.

Their chants also contain cheers of victory: Oakland mayor Jean Quan has said this will be the last year the Urban Shield trade show will be hostedin the city.

But Urban Shield will still have a home in Alameda County, and that is why the protesters are still out here. They see the entire event as a training ground that turns police into an urban army -- the same militarizationthey say was on display in Ferguson, Missouriafter a police officer shot and killed unarmed African American teen Michael Brown. In Ferguson, protesters took to the streets and the police cracked down with tanks and riot gear. Here in Oakland, police stand at the edges, watching the crowd cheer on speakers like Reggie Johnson.

“When you take officers who are supposed to protect and serve normal citizens, and you give them military training, then you are not training them to deal with citizens. They are only training them to deal with us as enemy combatants,” Johnson says.

Urban Shield officials say their training is all about disaster prep, but activists like Tara Tabassi are not buying that argument. Tabassi says the same companies that make the weapons of war are now marketing directly to local law enforcement -- turning the military-industrial complex into the police-industrial complex.

“What’s difficult about that,” Tabassi says, “is if it was really about emergency responders and rapid response, we wouldn’t be finding tanks, tear gas, assault rifles.”

Credit Sandhya Dirks
A SWAT team takes in equipment at the Urban Shield trade show.

Inside the hotel, amidst the buzz of the trade show, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman J.D. Nelson says that these days, police are tasked with protecting the public from domestic terrorism and mass shootings. Nelson says someone needs to be prepared to protect citizens. After all, he asks, what is the alternative?

“If that’s going to be your course and say you don’t want the police to be militarized and we’re going to wait for the military to handle those problems,” Nelson says, “I don’t think the people would be acceptable to that.”

But what about scenarios that are not terrorism or mass shootings, like the protests in Ferguson? J.D. Nelson says police face an increasingly dangerous landscape across the spectrum.

“What would seem to be docile situations turn very violent very quickly nowadays; the propensity of violence and guns in the communities is far greater than it was even 20 years ago. I understand people say, ‘Well, you didn’t talk to me very nicely at first. Well that’s because they might be a little bit on edge, because bad things happen, and do happen.”

But does a more militarized police force help increase -- even engender--  a more violent response from an equally anxious public?

“That’s a valid point,” says Nelson. “I think the watershed moment was the North Hollywood shootout where the police were woefully outgunned.”

I heard it more than once during the weekend, that this was a ground zero moment for policemilitarization: the 1997 North Hollywood shootout in Los Angeles.

Two men armed with illegally-modified automatic weapons robbed a bank in Laurel Canyon. The cops couldn’t match their firepower, so officers had to commandeer AR-15 rifles from a local gun dealer. When all was said and done, the robbers were dead and seven civilians and eleven police officers lay injured.

J.D. Nelson says that kind of situation is unacceptable. “I think as a society that people say, ‘We can’t have that. The police cannot get outgunned and be victims.’”

Police access to heavier-caliber weapons is no longer difficult. In fact, inside the Urban Shield trade show, one of the raffle prizes was an AR-15.   

In addition to guns and gear, there are also tools aimed at crowd control. Alameda Sheriff's detective Pat Smythe points to a huge speaker standing in the middle of the convention center floor.

Smythe says it is a noise continuation device, “for maybe some riot situation. What this device does is it projects this very loud, high-pitched noise, very loud, to where if you didn’t have ear protection it would cause you to want to leave. We would be hurting right now, if it was on.”

Theater of War

On the last day of Urban Shield, I find myself inside a literal theater of war -- in an actual theater at Las Positas Community College in Livermore. This scenario has a domestic terrorist group storming the stage where a judge was giving a speech. The terrorists have attempted to assassinate the judge, shooting at everyone.

It’s dark and smoky, and the lights are flickering.

Credit Sandhya Dirks
Urban Shield training scenario

You can just make out the shapes of detached prosthetic limbs and the supine bodies of actors playing dead scattered across the stage. Sitting in the balcony with law enforcement officials and a film crew from HBO, I watch as a SWAT team from Texas heads into the lower level seats and makes their way to the stage. They not only have to treat the wounded, making tourniquets and doing triage, they also have to navigate the terrorists that are still there.

Urban Shield proponents say a scenario like this -- a shooting in a theater -- could happen at anytime. They say being prepared is the best weapon against chaos. But critics say practicing war games and raffling off rifles normalizes a military response from cops. And when you normalize something— you make it the norm.  It seems safety, like so many things, is in the eye of the beholder.


Crosscurrents PolicingOakland
Sandhya got her start as a reporting fellow at KALW, working on award winning radio documentaries about crime and justice and education in Oakland. She reported on the 2012 presidential election in Iowa, for Iowa Public Radio, where she also covered diversity and mental health issues.