ESCONDIDO — The Escondido City Council recently approved the police department’s request for use of “military equipment” as required under a new state law that goes into effect May 1.
Signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last September, Assembly Bill 481 requires law enforcement agencies to seek city approval to fund, acquire and use items defined as military equipment and create a policy that dictates how the department can use the equipment.
According to staff, the law broadly defines such equipment to include commercially available tools such as drones used for scouting purposes only. As previously reported by The Coast News, the Carlsbad City Council on April 19 adopted a similar policy allowing the “funding, acquisition or use of military equipment by the Carlsbad Police Department.”
“They are not the same kind of drones the military uses to shoot missiles in foreign countries,” said Police Chief Ed Varso at the April 20 council meeting.
In addition to drones, Escondido Police have the following pieces of equipment that fall under the state’s definition of “military equipment”: a robotic platform, incident command vehicles, an armored personnel carrier, breaching equipment, patrol and SWAT rifles, flashbangs, chemical agents like tear gas, a long-range acoustic device and 40-millimeter launcher that shoots a foam-like material and not real bullets.
Varso noted that the department’s only piece of defined military equipment that is actually lethal is the rifle; the rest, meanwhile, is used to create more opportunities for non-lethal outcomes.
The police department does not have the following items: mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles; Humvees; track-armored vehicles; weaponized aircraft, vessels or vehicles; firearms or ammunition of .50 caliber or greater, or firearms designed to launch explosive projectiles.
Most of the military equipment the department does have is rarely used, with the exception of drones, which were used about 120 times in 2021. Varso said that the drones allow police officers to hold back at a safe distance while surveying the scene of an incident ahead of time to better plan the safest approach to the situation.
Varso gave the example of an incident in November 2020 when a man was pacing in front of the Wells Fargo Bank in the Felicita Town Center with a machete and a handgun. The police were able to use a drone to survey the area and watch as the suspect put both of his weapons down first before having police officers move in to make the arrest. In place at the scene was an officer holding a patrol rifle, another holding the launcher and another driving the armored vehicle.
While the law is broad in its definition of what is considered military-grade equipment, some council members felt the law helps improve transparency. The police department recently held a community meeting to inform residents how the equipment is used and even show it to them in person.
The meeting was helpful for Councilmember Consuelo Martinez, who said she learned that the armored vehicle isn’t armed at all but rather just a large truck with a bulletproof shell. She also learned the difference between what type of equipment the police have versus what kind of equipment the military actually has.
“I know when I hear that military equipment is in the hands of the police, it does raise concern so I learned that distinction when I went to that meeting,” Martinez said.
But resident Marisa Allen believes that the police department shouldn’t have chemical agents like tear gas.
“The use of military equipment like tear gas and bean bags by police to disperse crowds has escalated peaceful protests throughout the country,” Allen said. “Such equipment has no place in Escondido and its availability only encourages officers to see the people they are meant to protect and serve as enemies.”
According to Varso, the police department’s policy is that tear gas is to be used to force suspects out from hiding places and to disperse riots. The department’s long-range acoustic device, another controversial tool, is only allowed in emergency situations to gain the attention of a large crowd or to send out an emergency message as per its new policy.
Much of the equipment is also purchased through grant funding rather than with money from the city’s general fund. Anything purchased with a grant must first gain council approval. As for any other purchases, the police department follows the city’s code, which dictates what they can purchase without council approval depending on the cost.
“I do not believe we should be asking for new tools just because the funding is available,” Varso said. “It has to make sense.”
Mayor Paul McNamara said he was impressed with the police department’s report.
“You can really tell there is a lot of thought put into what equipment you are going after,” McNamara said. “We need to make sure our officers are safe. The equipment you’ve gone after is not militarizing the EPD or the city, this is just good common sense.”