Local News

Saturday, Aug 23 2014 04:00 PM

BPD resisting trend toward militarization

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    By Felix Adamo/The Californian

    Inside the Bakersfield Police SWAT command vehicle, are, from right to left, senior police officer Kevin Hock, Detective Matt Gregory, and Sgt. Brent Stratton.

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    By Felix Adamo/The Californian

    Often mistaken as a grenade by the general public, this is a light and sound diversionary device used by the Bakersfield police SWAT team to temporarily distract or disorient suspects, giving officers a tactical advantage in situations.

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    By Felix Adamo/The Californian

    BPD rangemaster and senior police officer Jim Ramos holds an AR-15A2 patrol rifle. The weapon, used by the Bakersfield Police Department, is not an automatic weapon.

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  4. 4 of 12

    By Felix Adamo/The Californian

    By dispersing .32 caliber rubber balls when exploded, this device is one of the less lethal options used by BPD SWAT when needed to control a situation.

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  5. 5 of 12

    By Felix Adamo/The Californian

    This 40mm exact impact round has a sponge nose to stop an aggressive, non-compliant subject without using lethal force.

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    By Felix Adamo/The Californian

    A selection of chemical munitions used by the Bakersfield Police Department SWAT team.

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  7. 7 of 12

    By Felix Adamo/The Californian

    The BPD Bearcat rescue vehicle used by the SWAT team.

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  8. 8 of 12

    By Felix Adamo/The Californian

    Senior police officer Kevin Hock, left, and Detective Matt Gregory of the Bakersfield Police Department SWAT team.

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    By Felix Adamo/The Californian

    Bakersfield police Sgt. Joe Grubbs.

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    By Felix Adamo/The Californian

    Eight .308 caliber bullets strapped to the stock of a Bakersfield police sniper rifle.

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    By Felix Adamo/The Californian

    The BPD Bearcat rescue vehicle used by the SWAT team. From left are Sgt. Joe Grubbs, Detective Matt Gregory, and Sgt. Brent Stratton.

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  12. 12 of 12

    By Felix Adamo/The Californian

    The Bakersfield police department SWAT command vehicle.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Men wearing camouflage fatigues, Kevlar helmets and military body armor carry black rifles through nervous city streets.

It's an image of military might that has been all over the news and social media in recent weeks.

Laser targeting systems, night-vision technology, flash-bang devices, chemical munitions and even heavy, armored vehicles have been on display in Ferguson, Mo., a predominantly black Midwestern city that became the focus of worldwide attention following the officer-involved shooting of an unarmed teenager and the protests, tensions and violence that have followed.

Attention has been focused not just on the weaponry, equipment and tactics used by Ferguson-area police, but also on a much broader trend that critics say has led to the militarization of many police departments across the country.

Politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle have reacted with alarm at the trend, and some have called for a scaling back of federal programs that transfer hundreds of millions of dollars worth of excess military equipment to civilian law-enforcement agencies each year.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, complained in Time magazine this month that police are looking and acting more like soldiers than cops.

Evan Bernick of the conservative Heritage Foundation, noted last year that cops in rural Bossier Parish, La., have a .50-caliber gun mounted atop an armored truck.

Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, is calling for hearings on the militarization of cops. And Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., announced earlier this month that he will introduce a bill that would limit the kinds of military equipment local police forces can acquire from the feds.

But what about Bakersfield? Has the Bakersfield Police Department followed the trend? What kind of equipment is available to the department's 342 sworn officers -- and especially members of its elite SWAT teams?

And more importantly, what are the policies governing the use of such equipment?

"Our premise," said BPD Sgt. Joe Grubbs, "is that we are not militarized. In fact, we have made decisions organizationally to make sure that perception is not there."

As a veteran police officer and the department's public information officer, Grubbs said he speaks for BPD Chief Greg Williamson. And while he won't point an accusing finger at any other agency, both he and Williamson, Grubbs acknowledged, have reacted with some dismay to recent examples of police militarization that seemed beyond the pale.

"This is a real issue," Grubbs said.

"You can see something and say, 'Wow, that seems a little extreme.'"

A PHILOSOPHY OF POLICING

In its study published last June of more than 800 SWAT deployments conducted by 20 law enforcement agencies in 2011 and 2012, the American Civil liberties Union concluded that federal efforts such as the Department of Defense's 1033 Program and grants from the Department of Homeland Security have led to pervasive police militarization.

SWAT teams, specialized paramilitary units developed in the 1970s by the Los Angeles Police Department, were originally created to respond to hostage situations, barricaded subjects, active shooter scenarios and other emergencies.

But the study "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing," found that law enforcement agencies are increasingly using SWAT teams to conduct warrant searches -- especially drug warrants.

Nearly eight of 10 incidents the ACLU studied involved the use of a SWAT team to search a person's home, and more than 60 percent of the cases involved searches for drugs.

The BPD, however, has resisted that trend. In all of last year, the department's part-time SWAT team was called out just six times -- and never on a drug warrant, according to BPD records.

Five or six call-outs a year is standard, Grubbs said. And while the department isn't afraid to order its SWAT team to roll when circumstances call for it, BPD leadership -- over the tenure of successive chiefs of police -- has held to a philosophy that a community's police department should not be mistaken for a combat-ready Army or Marine unit.

WELL ARMED, WITHIN LIMITS

BPD Rangemaster and Senior Police Officer Jim Ramos knows his way around an AR-15, the department's standard patrol rifle.

On a recent weekday morning, Ramos provided a basic tutorial on the iconic firearm at the department's shooting range on Truxtun Avenue.

More famously known as the M-16, its Vietnam-era military designation, the rifle allows police officers to remain at a safe distance in an active-shooter scenario -- like the one near West High School in March that shut down an entire neighborhood when a suspect fired several shots at pursuing officers before being wounded and taken into custody.

Pointing to the side of the AR-15, Ramos moved a small selector switch back and forth, making it clear this model is not the one used in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

"It has two selections," Ramos said. "Safe and fire."

That distinction is crucial. Police departments, at their discretion, are allowed to include fully automatic weapons in their arsenal if they believe it to be necessary.

But the BPD, again resisting the trend to militarize, has held hard and fast to the belief that fully automatic firearms are antithetical to community policing and potentially dangerous to bystanders.

"We have no fully automatic weapons," Grubbs said.

"We have chosen not to," he added.

The AR-15s employed by the department, while powerful and deadly, are semi-automatic, meaning they fire a single round each time the trigger is depressed. No street sweeping. No Rambo-like bursts of machine gun fire.

It's about precision, professionalism and accounting for every round fired in the line of duty.

Yes, it's possible officers could find themselves outgunned in the event a suspect was in possession of a fully automatic rifle. But Grubbs and others argue that training and advanced tactics can make up the difference in firepower.

THE BEARCAT

The U.S. Department of Defense has supplied more than $5 billion worth of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies as part of the federal 1033 Program.

But the BPD has accepted no equipment through the program.

However, the department did acquire a Lenco BearCat armored response and rescue vehicle through a grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

Worth approximately $250,000, the BearCat's armor can provide protection against high-caliber rounds, and its self-contained breathing apparatus can provide safe breathing in the event of a toxic spill or the use of tear gas, pepper gas or other chemical elements.

"The purpose of SWAT is to save lives. Stone cold. That's it," Ramos said.

"The misconceptions out there in regard to tactics teams is overwhelming."

The BearCat is the SWAT team's tactical vehicle. In the event of chaotic and dangerous incidents like the McDonald Way shootings near West High, SWAT can back up the vehicle to the door of a residence and safely carry everyone to safety.

"It's important to note there are no weapons systems mounted on this truck," said Detective Matt Gregory, a SWAT member.

However, inside and atop the BearCat and SWAT's larger command vehicle is a tactician's dream: a tool chest containing conventional and infra-red video, tools to open reinforced doors, riot shields, flash-bang devices, a wide variety of chemical munitions in both flame and flameless forms and other devices.

"We want to be completely transparent," Grubbs said in inviting a reporter to view the department's weapons and equipment. "We have nothing to hide."

Displaying what he called a 40-mm launcher, Gregory recalled using it to fire a sponge-tipped, exact-impact round to bring down an aggressive subject swinging a machete at officers. At one point, the man slashed the family dog with the blade, nearly killing it.

The less-than-lethal option used by Gregory is not available to the average patrol officer, but in this case, it allowed police to take the man into custody without using deadly force -- even though deadly force may have been justified.

Some of these munitions are controversial -- especially when used routinely, but SWAT members said the use of these tactical tools is rare, and again, designed to protect the lives of officers, innocent bystanders and even suspects.

In a society in which civilians are increasingly likely to carry, conceal or otherwise possess firearms, cops may be forgiven when they assume, for their own safety, that everyone they encounter could have a gun.

In 2013, the BPD seized 583 firearms as evidence. That doesn't count many more temporarily held by police for safe keeping before returning them to their owners.

The vast numbers of guns in the hands of Americans presents a sobering reality for every street cop who, at the end of the day, just wants go home safely to his or her family, Grubbs said. But transforming the department into something resembling a military unit is not the answer.

Others may disagree, but the complete lack of automatic weapons, the rare use of paramilitary SWAT units, and a traditional philosophy that eschews the militarization of civilian policing in general are strong indicators, Grubbs argued, that the BPD is not following the trend toward militarization other departments have adopted.

That's not to say that the proper tool, in the right hands, doesn't bring a certain level of satisfaction.

"It's not a tank," Gregory said of the armored BearCat. However, its mere presence is sometimes enough to convince a barricaded subject to come out with his hands up.

That's the outcome everyone wants.

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