To Protect and Serve? Police Militarization from "Urban Shield" Has Boston Residents Worried

Faneuil Hall was full of tourists, the smell of food and the sound of a street performer drumming on buckets. A circus tent was set up just outside City Hall Plaza, the sounds of the announcer and the cheering audience filling the typically empty plaza. No one – not the tourists, not the street performers, not the lion tamers or ringleaders – knew that a SWAT team was roaming the hallways of City Hall to rescue city officials who had been taken hostage.

The SWAT team made their way into a hallway overlooking the lobby in a single-file line, closing in on their next target. They burst into the council hall, guns pointed at one perpetrator who put his hands up. The hostages were on the floor. One SWAT member asked how many men and hostages were in the next room, his rifle focused right on the man’s chest, his hands steady – all while a handful of journalists were taking pictures and rolling film just behind some yellow tape.

It was only a drill. The hostages were volunteers, not actual officials, and the weapons were a new tactical laser-tag technology that replaced the old paint-firing simulation guns. It was one of the many city-wide, 24-hour Urban Shield drills that took place in Boston on May 3 and 4.

Urban Shield originated in California’s Alamdea County in 2007. It promotes itself as “a comprehensive, full-scale regional preparedness exercise.” The annual event is overseen by Cytel Group Inc. and funded by Department of Homeland Security grants. The three-day-long event in Oakland features training drills not just for local SWAT and police teams, but for teams across the country and across the world – including police departments in controversial U.S. allies like Israel and Bahrain.

The event also features a vendors’ expo that allows local agencies to shop from training, simulation and arms companies. Last year’s showroom vendors included ATK-Blackhawk, Colt and Lockheed Martin. ATK and Colt are returning for Urban Shield 2014, according to the vendor directory on Urban Shield’s website. ATK and Lockheed have large defense contracts with the Pentagon.

Urban Shield has attracted controversy in recent years, accused of playing a role in militarizing police departments, both through its SWAT drills and its showroom. Last year’s trade show attracted hundreds of protestors, including the Facing Urban Shield Action Network, a coalition of 20 groups in the Bay Area. Cephus Johnson, Oscar Grant’s uncle, called Urban Shield “war games within our city” at the protest.

As Anna Feigenbaum wrote at Waging Nonviolence, Urban Shield “presents a view of our ‘high-threat, high-density’ cities as always, already violent spaces. This vision of urban life dehumanizes and criminalizes public assembly and nonviolent protest.”

“What Urban Shield represents to us is the epitome of state repression that has been impacting communities of color and immigrant communities for decades,” Lara Kiswani, of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, told Common Dreams. “Different strategies of surveillance against Arabs and Muslims and brown and black people are being used as tactics against our people back home. This is the militarization of the police.”

Last February, an episode of Al Jazeera’s documentary series Fault Lines focused on the recent upswing in Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams and military equipment among local police forces in the U.S. Findings from the episode include a 1,400-percent increase in SWAT raids since the 1980s – an estimated 50,000 raids a year. According to Faultlines, 85 to 95 percent of those raids are to either serve a warrant or address drug offenses.

“The percentage that goes wrong is small,” Peter Kraska, a professor of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University, told Faultlines. “However, when it goes wrong, it goes extremely wrong.” The episode mentioned several innocent people killed in SWAT raids, including Todd Blair, José Guerren and Roger Serrato.

According to Faultlines, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grands has made SWAT teams a multi-million-dollar business.

“You go to these vendors’ halls, and they’re not even pretending to make a distinction between policing and the military mindset,” Washington Post reporter Radley Balko told Faultlines.

The episode also highlights a program set up by the Defense Logistics Agency that allows police departments to request surplus military equipment from DHS for free.

A few years ago, The Boston Police Department took part in Urban Shield in Oakland and decided to bring that large-scale model of training back with them. Rene Fielding, director of the City’s Office of Emergency Management, said Urban Shield: Boston differs from Oakland’s event in that it incorporates drills for all first responders, including fire departments, transit police and emergency medical services.

“It’s a great opportunity to test and evaluate our teams’ training,” says Fielding. Urban Shield first came to Boston in May 2011. Training was held again in November 2012, but officials canceled it in 2013 because of the Boston Marathon bombings.

“Everything that you saw happen within seconds of the explosion was all because someone thought they should be prepared for that,” Cytel’s president, James Baker, told Herny Grabar in an article for CityLab.

This year’s Urban Shield: Boston put trainees through the previously mentioned mock hostage situation at City Hall and other emergency scenarios such as a school shooter, a collapse in a parking lot, an explosive device found in the transit system and a “consolidated event” at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center that brought multiple response teams together.

According to a press release from the Mayor’s Office, the drills involved personnel from the Boston Police Department, the Boston Fire Department, Emergency Medical Services, the Office of Emergency Management, the Boston Public Health Commission, the Metro-Boston Homeland Security Region, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Conference of Boston Teaching Hospitals.

Despite the differences between Urban Shield: Boston and its West Coast counterpart, many are still concerned over what they see as the increasing militarization of Boston-area law enforcement. “A major part of Urban Shield is still training in highly militarized tactics,” said Kimber Heinz, a member of War Resister League’s Facing Teargas Campaign. Those are the same tactics often seen in SWAT raids in communities of color and immigrant communities throughout Boston.

On May 4, the same weekend as Urban Shield, a new coalition called Stop Oppressive Militarized Police (STOMP) hosted a speak-out and teach-in to discuss police militarization. A coalition of local social justice organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Boston Feminists for Liberation, Dorchester People for Peace, the International Socialist Organization and Youth Against Mass Incarceration co-sponsored the event, which was STOMP’s first. Families for Justice as Healing hosted the event at their new home on Humboldt Ave. in Roxbury.

Ali Issa of the War Resisters League said one problem with programs like Urban Shield is that officials get to define what an emergency really is, and they can decide that “preparedness” means a militarized police force.

According to Kade Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts, STOMP wants to establish a different narrative when it comes to training and equipping local police.

“There’s not a lot of dissent, and there is a lot of unquestioning support,” said Crockford. The coalition did not form STOMP to be a once-a-year response to Urban Shield, she said, but “aims to be longer term … These are everyday issues.”

“There’s no due process in our community,” said Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice as Healing.* “If young men stand in a particular place for a while, they will be stopped … It’s like being incarcerated. We’re incarcerated in our own community.”

James said police operate predictably in her community – a cruiser would take its usual spot on Humboldt Ave. later that evening as it does every day, sending a message of surveillance and authority. Roxbury residents in the room nodded, understanding exactly what she meant.

“They’ll sit on the corner all night. That’s their response to our community, that’s their response to our poverty,” James explained.

Gabriel Camacho of the American Friends Service Committee is a resident of the Watertown neighborhood that police locked down during last year’s manhunt for Dzhokar Tsarnaev, one of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers. Camacho showed the crowd a photo essay of the day’s events – pictures taken from inside his home of armored vehicles cruising the streets and assault weapons pointed at people’s homes.

According to Camacho, police took people from their homes and lined them up on his lawn to interrogate them. According to Julia Dahl of CBS’s Crimesider site, the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the Department of Homeland Security and the National Guard were all involved in that manhunt.

Camacho said that his neighborhood is mostly Arabic and Muslim. He added that SWAT raids and lockdowns were common in communities of color, and referenced operations carried out under COINTELPRO, the FBI’s long-running, largely illegal campaign against civil rights leaders, anti-war activists and suspected leftists.

“It’s no mistake at all that this happened in a predominantly Arab community,” said Camacho. Tsarnaev wasn’t found during the lockdown but after authorities lifted the shelter-in-place order.

Statewide, many residents still support the lockdown decision. A recent MassINC poll found that 83 percent of Massachusetts residents still support the shelter-in-place decision, while 10 percent said the lockdown was the wrong decision. Two percent answered “both/depends,” and six percent said they did not know. The approval rate is down slightly from 91 percent, what it was a year ago. Governor Deval Patrick recently told the Associated Press that he still stands by his decision.

Drake Jones is a member Black and Pink, a prison abolition group made up of current and former lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender (LGBTQ) prisoners and their allies. He spoke about the effects of policing and surveillance on LGBTQ communities and described how police departments request new equipment to deal with protestors. Departments then keep the equipment after the protests end and use it to police local communities.

Clara Sheffield also spoke. Boston police fatally shot her 26-year-old son in August 2012 for allegedly fleeing a “routine traffic stop” in an area that had been experiencing break-ins.

Sheffield said there are conflicting police reports and a lack of transparency between her and the Boston Police Department following her son’s death. She ended by calling for a strengthened Citizen Review Board; the internal investigation into her son’s death, she reminded the crowd, was police investigating police.

According to an article by Jack Sullivan in Commonwealth Magazine released earlier this year, state and local police have shot and killed 73 people across Massachusetts over the last 12 years, including 12 in 2013. None have resulted in criminal charges, and only one resulted in disciplinary actions – the death of Victoria Snelgrove, hit by a pepper ball during a crowd celebration after the Red Sox defeated the Yankees in the 2004 playoffs.

The article says that in as many as ten cases, the details surrounding the incident are unclear. Sometimes the victim did nothing wrong, In others, police initiated the action and did not avoid violence. Other times, Sullivan writes, “the police story just doesn’t add up.”

“Of the 73 deadly force incidents, 29 involved people wielding guns; 23 carried a knife, hatchet, machete, sword, or box cutter; three held a pointy household item such as a pen, screwdriver, or barbecue fork; 11 drove a car in a threatening way; five others were unarmed; one had a pellet gun; and one had a starter’s gun,” Sullivan wrote.

Maki Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, told Commonwealth that the small size of most police forces makes internal investigations “a closed process by nature.”

According to Haberfield, 97 percent of police departments have fewer than 50 officers.

“Where everybody knows everybody can be a problem,” she said. “Any profession that investigates themselves, there is always going to be doubt. Familiarity will always have some influence.”

Some speakers at the speak-out linked militarized police with the war on drugs, which leads to disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos.

“Urban Shield is a symbol of the war on drugs, the war on terror and the war on immigration coming together,” Issa explained. “The war on drugs was designed to survey and control communities of color.”

James agreed: “It was never a war on drugs. It was a war on us.”

Mayor Marty Walsh is currently in a standoff with the Boston Police Department over its purchasing of 33 AR-15 assault rifles, which the Department wants to distribute between different districts. The Department announced thisplan in late 2013, though former police commissioner Ed Davis planned the purchase well before the Marathon bombings. Mayor Walsh shot down the plan after taking office.

Former Boston Police Department Lt. Thomas Nolan agreed with the mayor, telling Off the Grid News, “If the cops have these machine guns, they’re going to use them. Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get killed, an innocent bystander is going to get caught in the crossfire and there is going to be a tragic result.”

* Due to a copyediting error, an earlier version of this story referred to “the Boston chapter of Families for Justice as Healing.” There is only one chapter.

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