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AB481 promises to demilitarize the police through local government regulation.

The War on Drugs began in the Reagan Era, and what began along with it, was the militarization of the police for the purpose of being more prepared to conduct arrests. In other words, the police were able to acquire and use leftover military grade weapons in their operations. Assembly Bill 481, passed in September of 2021, regulates this process through measures of transparency via local government approval.

Illustrated by Melody Zhang

Written by Daniel Gong, Katelyn Shen



Police brutality is not a new thing; in fact, between 1980 and 2018, approximately 30,800 deaths can be attributed to this ongoing problem. But only recently has it come to the forefront of political debate after George Floyd was killed. The following protests only corroborated the existence of such violence as TV broadcasted the tear gas, shields, and military vehicles that police used against peaceful protestors. Over a year later on September 30, 2021, Governor Newsom finally signed AB 481—a bill designed to put police equipment policy in the hands of city residents—into law.

Across the US, police are able to acquire leftover military grade weapons through a program called 1033. This program gives municipal cops military grade weapons with little extra payment. However, there is no federal regulation on police training to use these weapons, meaning untrained officers are using dangerous military grade weapons on duty. Furthermore, there is also a discussion to be had about whether police should even have access to these weapons. For instance, police are legally allowed to use tear gas against protestors even though tear gas has been dangerous enough to be banned from war since 1993. Now, in California, through AB481, citizens are finally able to voice their own thoughts on these issues.

In accordance with AB481, law enforcement agencies must obtain proper approval from their respective City Council for funding, acquiring, or using military equipment. During a city council meeting, the bill must be heard to be adequately established, publicized to the city, and approved by the council. In short, AB 481 allows the governing body of a municipality to support the funding and the use of military equipment within its jurisdiction if it has specified value and reasoning.

It conveys the idea that acquiring equipment can have enormous implications on public safety, welfare, risks to civil rights, etc and acknowledges that this equipment is more frequently used for harm in low-income black or brown communities.

Due to the broadness of weaponry that fall under the category of “military equipment," the Fremont Police Department is required to ask for approval for many weapons, as many of their equipment do classify under the term. As a current military weapon owner, the police department was exempt from this new bill until May 1, where they are required to have received approval to continue utilizing military equipment. The process increases transparency and accountability allowing the citizens to have a better understanding of what the police have, but it requires extra work on the part of the police to compile the list and obtain approval from the city council.

The Fremont Police Department presented at the April 19th City Council meeting in accordance with the “military equipment use policy” passed by Governor Gavin Newsom. The list contains no new equipment and was also publicly released on their website and contains over 10 different weapons including unmanned vehicles, armored carriers, breaching shotguns, specialized firearms, gas and smoke, and many other military level weapons. The police department claims that the weapons are only used when necessary to keep the community safe along with an individual explanation of each weapon’s uses. The weapons are said to be necessary because there is “no reasonable alternative."

Despite the assurances the Fremont Police Department has provided about the function of these weapons, citizens are still hesitant about the need for the police to acquire such weapons. With generally low crime rates in Fremont, many people fail to see the necessity of the police to possess such dangerous weapons. The purchasing of these equipment means the potential of the weapons being used in the future. When there is equipment, there is a pressure to use it, which is why citizens fear for their safety with the knowledge that the police harbor such weapons.

Many have requested for reports on how the equipment have been used before in the past to ensure the equipment has been and will be only used for the safety of the citizens. The Fremont Police Department has assured that none of the weapons would be used for military purposes and only for emergency situations as can be seen from the list they have published on their website. However, it is still reasonable for citizens to be cautious, as many facts about military grade weapons are very concerning. For instance, while the police department claims they have rubber bullets as an alternative to lethal force, studies show 3% struck by them still die, with nearly 50% of rubber bullet shots to the head or neck being lethal.

On the other hand, many Police Departments and officials across California have had concerns about this bill. According to Kings County Sheriff David Robinson, “it’s pretty frustrating that now we have to advise them, the type of chemical agents we use, the type of ammunition that we use.” Robinson shares concerns that criminals are now better able to prepare themselves against the police, and this may lead to the loss of officer lives. This difficult debate of police safety vs police abuse of power is nearly impossible to resolve, but it should be known that for years there has been little to stop police power abuse. Overall, this bill is the first step in shifting the needle towards citizen transparency, and while this may cause police casualties, it is too early to say if the bill is harmful.

Overall, this law promotes transparency and accountability in the law enforcement for Fremont, but has little change in the residents’ daily lives. The police have stated that all weapons that were presented were already in use and their use is only being renewed, as the acquisition of new military weapons would require another presentation to the city council for approval. This means that these weapons were present even before the bill was passed. Since the presence of these weapons were never too obvious in the past, it is unlikely they will suddenly become a big issue just because they were pushed into public light. Rather with this bill, law enforcement can be kept in check, as a legislative body will be overlooking their purchases to ensure the military weapons obtained are only used for the benefit of citizens.

The public also gets a look inside the various weapons the police department owns, which is a double edged sword, as it could provide a sense of safety knowing what weapons the police have available to counter certain emergency situations, but also could alarm citizens with knowledge of its presence. David Chiu, the assemblyman who gave the idea of the bill, justified the bill saying, “If we learned anything from last summer’s protests, it is that communities should have a say in how they are policed. This policy gives residents a voice." In the end, the use of these weapons prior to the bill and after the bill should not change, but now, citizens and the city council can further check law enforcement agencies. As Governor Gavin Newsom says, “Too many lives have been lost due to racial profiling and excessive use of force. We cannot change what is past, but we can build accountability, root out racial injustice and fight systemic racism."

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