Killing Urban Shield

Last month activists and politicians in Northern California pulled the plug on America's best scenario-based SWAT training exercise.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

Editor David GriffithEditor David GriffithPhoto: Kelly Bracken

Urban Shield is dead. The 48-hour SWAT competition and emergency operations exercise organized by the Alameda County (CA) Sheriff’s Office was some of the best first-responder training available, and it was killed by Northern California’s anti-police activists.

A coalition of anti-police groups, Muslim associations, and progressive politicians pushed the narrative that Urban Shield was furthering the “militarization of law enforcement” and the oppression of minorities. They also argued that because the event was held each year around the anniversary of 9/11 and many of the scenarios involved terrorism that it was inherently Islamophobic.

I had the privilege to observe Urban Shield in 2008, and I didn’t see any oppression of minorities or Islamophobia. What I did see was some really intense law enforcement training. Here’s how I summed up the experience in a feature for the November 2008 issue of POLICE titled “Best Training Anywhere”: “Over the weekend, I have seen dozens of SWAT officers run through complicated scenarios and gain hands-on time with new police technologies and products. They have fought battles in train cars, on sweltering aircraft, in cramped industrial sites, in crowded school buildings, and on moving boats. They have improved their teamwork, bolstered their confidence, and learned to stay in the fight—regardless of fatigue, pain, or injury-until the hostages are rescued and the ‘tangos’ are down.”

The training provided by Urban Shield would seem like a valuable asset that the elected officials of Alameda County would want to maintain for their first responders, especially in an era of lone wolf terrorism and active shooters. But kowtowing to anti-police sentiment was more important to them than giving their law enforcement officers the training to keep their constituents safe. So in late February the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to transform Urban Shield into something else.

Adopting the recommendations of an ad hoc committee that probably included very little police input, the supervisors decided that Urban Shield would no longer be called “Urban Shield” and that what replaced it would no longer involve SWAT and no longer be a competition. Also, instead of being a primarily terrorism-focused event, the exercises would be about earthquakes and other natural disasters. And finally, any exercise involving police would emphasize de-escalation.

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern warned the supervisors that adopting these recommendations would breach the agreement (contract) that the county had with the federal government for funding the training. But they voted to do so anyway. And the feds in the form of the Department of Homeland Security yanked the $1.7 million grant provided through the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative that helped pay for Urban Shield.

So RIP Urban Shield. Which is terribly sad. Since 2007 this event has offered some of the finest scenario-based training to police, firefighters, and emergency medical professionals in the Bay Area. In addition, it has fostered camaraderie among dozens of tactical law enforcement units from California, other U.S. states, and U.S. allies overseas.

The death of Urban Shield is just one more example of anti-police groups vilifying SWAT. Activists claim SWAT is a sledge hammer used to oppress people of color. They say that SWAT should be reserved for hostage incidents and active shooters and not be used to serve warrants against suspected drug dealers in minority neighborhoods. They want such high-risk warrants to be served by cops in standard uniform. These people are either ignorant or they want to see more dead cops and dead alleged drug dealers. SWAT officers are assigned to serve high-risk warrants because they have special gear and training designed to protect them against deadly response from such suspects, and they can bring special equipment and weapons to intimidate a dangerous suspect into surrendering.

The other piece of propaganda that the anti-SWAT folks used against Urban Shield was the argument that police are becoming too militarized. I’ve been reading about this topic for the last 19 years, and I’ve yet to hear anyone define it. I think they want all officers to look like they spend all day looking for lost dogs. Truthfully, the people who scream about militarized law enforcement just want to disarm you. That’s their only goal.

The anti-police activists didn’t disarm the law enforcement officers of Northern California when they killed Urban Shield. But they certainly deprived them of an excellent training event that also benefited hundreds of other first responders. And that’s a terrible loss.

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