Urban Shield is, in the words of a 20-page itinerary given to me by Robert Lipp, the Battalion Chief of the Oakland Fire Department and PIO for Urban Shield, a “planned training exercise involving local, national and international first responder agencies” intended to “assist tactical teams as well as first responders, to prepare for and be able to provide a unified response to disasters and major emergencies.” It has been hosted by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office since 2007. The event includes 54 training scenarios in cities across the Bay Area plus 100 agencies and over 5,000 participants.
Lipp, who was to be my guide for a tour of the exercises, finished up a last-minute phone call with a “groovy” to the person on the other line, apologized to me for the wait, then we began our short tour of three Urban Shield disaster scenarios.
The first scenario is hardly mentionable — we arrived late to the waterfront where an exercise already in progress was wrapping up. It seemed to involve a group of men running into the water with a raft. Lipp didn’t explain it to me. He didn’t actually seem to understand what was happening, and neither of us bothered to look at the itinerary.
Instead, we approached a small crowd of police officers and firefighters gathered around the edge of the pier drinking water bottles from a big stack of them. A muscled older man came up and shook Lipp’s hand, asking “who’s this handsome guy?” I was introduced to the man (I forget his name), and then proceeded to shake hands with the rest of the officers and firefighters without an introduction. It probably was plainly obvious to them all that I was with the press, since I accompanied Lipp who was the man in charge of giving press tours. Their cordiality didn’t seem completely disingenuous but it had a staged quality to it, not unlike the way a little kid feels meeting strange distant relatives at a family reunion.
While I made the rounds, Lipp and the older firefighter began musing over a map of the training scenarios. Lipp decided to take me to a training scenario involving “extremists” (the words of the older gentleman) having rammed into a lumber boat. The training responders were to rescue a resistant volunteer (the extremist, I assumed) and two training mannequins. Lipp drove us to the scene where we watched the scenario from atop a docked boat near Jack London Square. As we watched from a distance he expounded upon the priorities of the first responders in a disaster scenario such as the simulation we were viewing. He explained that the responders three key priorities included 1) mitigating the loss of life, 2) preserving both private and public property and 3) ensuring the preservation of environment (as was the case in a scenario involving an oil spill, which I did not view). We watched a boat of trainees attempt to rescue one of the mannequins from the water. “They love the realism,” Lipp said. He explained that since the trainees were training with and being evaluated by departments from other cities, the problem of being judged too leniently by a peer was eliminated. As Lipp put it: “It’s just kinda hard to be an asshole to someone you know.”
After we finished viewing the “extremist” scenario, Lipp took me to see one last exercise. On the way I asked him about Urban Shield’s trade expo and the foreign forces that come to train alongside OPD, which have previously included Bahraini soldiers and Israeli border police — both notorious for their brutal enforcement tactics.
Some background: The trade expo and the participation of certain foreign police forces in the training scenarios are the most controversial aspects of Urban Shield, and had been the subject of a small protest I attended the day before my tour with Lipp. An arms trade show was held on October 25 in the Marriott hotel in downtown Oakland. The trade show included vendors exhibiting computer software, riot gear, assault weapons, and drones. Despite the modest turnout, the demonstration received considerable media attention.
At the protest, activists emphasized the slippery slope of normalizing a militarized city police force. Nouri Khouri, an organizer with the War Resisters League (WRL), said that the money spent on Urban Shield is needed for “schools and community” and questioned what its presence says about the way the Oakland Police Department (OPD) feels about the community at large. Ali Issa also from the WRL, said that Urban Shield demonstrates “the force of militarization in our everyday life” and that “tactics being used by dictators are used here.” Naturally, police stationed at the scene had a different understanding of the event. A police officer stationed across the street from the protest countered the protestors, claiming they “misunderstood” the purpose of Urban Shield and that policing technology is “like cell phones… it’s always changing.”
Lipp paused at my question then explained that he was frustrated at protestors’ focus on OPD’s involvement in Urban Shield over the training scenarios the fire department and medical personal get to take part in. He acknowledged that the police training was certainly “the most visible” aspect of the event, but gave his opinion on the potential usefulness of military technology and training for the police, saying the military has valuable experience dealing with “large angry groups” and that, regarding police violence against demonstrators, “it depends on how you apply the tactics.”
Before I could say anything, Lipp brought up the fact that Urban Shield coincided with the anniversary of the police raid that evicted protestors from the downtown Occupy Oakland encampment. “You know…,” he paused again for a moment, then said, “perhaps the date could have been planned better.”
We arrived at the decommissioned lower portion of the old Bay Bridge after going through a few checkpoints. “I guess they really have this place locked down,” Lipp said as we drove towards the final training exercise site for the day. The scenario involved a hijacked FedEx truck that had plowed through traffic, injured a pedestrian, and left the perpetrator hanging for dear life from the edge of the bridge. Packages and broken glass littered the scene while a volunteer with fake blood oozing from his head was dragged to safety by Oakland firemen, who then proceeded to engage in an aerial rescue of the perpetrator, a training mannequin, as it dangled off the bridge. The exercise was conducted quietly, and without any of the simulated explosions or firefights I had anticipated (I mean, just check out the trailer for Urban Shield Boston 2012).
I had a feeling I wasn’t seeing the side of Urban Shield the protestors had demonstrated against. These exercises seemed generally uncontroversial to me. I asked if I could have access to the police exercises going on at the other side of the bridge and Lipp attempted to get me through the blockade. The guards told us the exercises weren’t set up yet and I left the site without seeing them.
On the way back to the main site, I brought up the trade expo again. I asked Lipp if the militarized technology shown by the vendors was truly useful for a city police force. Lipp suggested it was and reiterated his earlier defense. Then I asked if the expo included technology relevant to the firefighters and medical personal involved in rescue scenarios. Lipp thought about it and said, “not as much as we’d like.”
My tour ended shortly after that. I left the Urban Shield command center feeling slightly dissatisfied with the tour, perhaps for the wrong reasons. I had come half-expecting to see a cartoonish caricature of militarized law enforcement, or at least something that jelled with the protestors criticisms. Lipp’s tour of the firefighter’s exercises was nothing of the sort.
But I still wonder what a tour of the police exercises might have looked like. Or the trade show. Then I think about what a protestor had told me about the “normalization” of militarization in our everyday life. While Robert Lipp seemed reluctant to turn away any training or technology the military had to offer, I question whether everything the military has to offer is relevant to city law enforcement. Certainly Oakland law enforcement can learn some things from military intelligence. But perhaps the mentality of thinking about the community as a potential “large angry group” is something we don’t want our law enforcement to take away from an event like Urban Shield.