Combat Hardware Acquisitions Heighten Concern About Sheriff’s Department Militarization

Concern about the already-heightened militarization of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department intensified this month with the county board of supervisors’ acquiescence in the department’s acquisition of three pieces of combat equipment worth $1,292,048.
The county board of supervisors on May 9 signed off on spending $356,000 to purchase a 2021 Lenco BEARCAT G3, a reinforced armored counter-response four-wheel-drive truck that possesses multiple specialized offensive capabilities. It is capable of both road/highway and off-road use.
In addition, the county is also paying $505,493 for an Andros Spartan explosive ordnance disposal robot.
The department is acquiring, as well, a $430,555 customized mobile command post, courtesy of the City of Victorville, which contracts with the sheriff’s department for the provision of law enforcement services.
In recent decades, a number of incidents nationwide, including mass shootings and circumstances in which criminals have engaged in the use of heavy firepower such as semiautomatic and fully automatic firearms, has prompted not only calls to arm police agencies with all order of military-level weaponry and equipment but the actual provision of that ordnance to local law enforcement. Over the last 15 years or so, police department after police department throughout the Golden State has outfitted their Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams with semi-automatic guns and magazines and trained its members in their deployment. So routine and casual is the intensive arming of peace officers in California that a little more than ten years ago, when the Fontana Unified School District’s police department, consisting of officers who are assigned to the district’s 30 elementary schools, seven middle schools and five high schools, purchased 14 Colt LE6940 high-powered semiautomatic rifles, no one batted an eye. That was one each for all 14 of the department’s sworn officers. The Fontana Unified School District Police Department does not have a SWAT team. The proliferation of that type of destructive gear in the hands of the police motivated the California Legislature to pass and Governor Gavin Newsom to sign Assembly Bill 481. Recognizing that taking large-caliber firearms, semiautomatic or even automatic firearms, armor piercing shells, hollow point bullets, explosive projectile launchers, explosive breaching tools, “flashbang” grenades, drones, helicopters and mechanized assault vehicles away from the police would prove politically costly or impossible in the face of the law enforcement profession’s lobbying might and the rigors and demands of modern police work, legislators instead made an effort to transfer the onus and responsibility for arming the state’s more than 300 separate police agencies to the local officials directly overseeing them, a move which was touted as increasing transparency, accountability, and oversight with regard to the acquisition and use of military equipment by police and sheriff’s departments. AB 481 applied to not just weapons, but armored and weaponized vehicles and any other equipment that carries with it a military cachet.
AB 481, which went into effect on January 1, 2022, requires all law enforcement agencies in the state to obtain approval from each individual agency’s governing body before purchasing, raising funds for, or acquiring military equipment by any means, including requesting surplus military equipment from the federal government. The law further required agencies to seek governing body approval before collaborating with another law enforcement agency in the deployment or use of military equipment within the governing body’s territorial jurisdiction, or before using any new or existing military equipment for a purpose, in a manner, or by a person not previously approved by the governing body.
Governing body approval under AB 481 must take the form of an ordinance adopting a publicly released, written military equipment use policy, which must address a number of specific topics, including the type, quantity, capabilities, purposes, and authorized uses of each type of military equipment, the fiscal impact of the acquisition and use of that equipment, the legal and procedural rules that govern the equipment’s  use, the training required by any officer allowed to use the equipment, the mechanisms in place to ensure policy compliance, and the procedures by which the public may register complaints. Under AB 481, the governing body must consider a proposed military equipment use policy in open session and may only approve a military equipment use policy if it makes various specific findings regarding the necessity of the military equipment and what is termed “the lack of reasonable alternatives.”
For cities that contract with another entity for law enforcement services, such as with a county sheriff’s department, AB 481 gives the city the independent authority to adopt its own military equipment use policy based on local community needs.
Law enforcement agencies that had previously acquired military equipment were required under AB 481 to obtain, no later than May 1, 2022, governing body approval for that equipment.
AB 481 did not, as some had hoped it would, force the demilitarization of the police. Nor did it limit further militarization of those forces, provided a majority of the governing body which had nominative authority over them evinced no objection to that militarization. In actuality, one effect of AB 481, was to allow for different agencies to undergo differing degrees of militarization, subject to the willingness of the board members overseeing each individual jurisdiction, to go along with arming its civil police force to virtually any level that panel saw fit, with virtually no limit on the intensity or lethal potential an agency could embrace.
What emerged after AB 481 took effect was not a diminution in the lethalization of the state’s various police agencies but rather a competition amongst at least some departments, in particular the better funded ones, to see which might more fully assume the identity of a paramilitary organization.
In many respects, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is leading in that arm’s race.
In October 1971, under then-Sheriff Frank Bland, a World War II Marine who had seen action in the Alaska campaign to liberate the islands Attu and Kiska from the Japanese, the department formed its aviation division, using federal law enforcement augmentation funding to acquire two turbo-charged civil aviation Bell 47G helicopters, which were placed under the command of then-Lieutenant Terry Jagerson, a licensed helicopter pilot. It was a giant leap for the department, increasing its patrol and rapid response capability. But within two months, it was clear that the two airships were insufficient to the task of serving the entirety of the 20,105-square mile county, which covered more ground than the states of New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Over the next several years, the department acquired three Hughes 500 C helicopters to boost its patrol capability.
In 1981, ten years after the aviation division had been formed and just about a year before the close of Bland’s 28 years as San Bernardino County sheriff, the department acquired four new Hughes 500D helicopters to augment its existing fleet, putting into the possession of the sheriff’s department what was arguably the most effective civilian law enforcement/search and rescue program in the nation.
The aviation division continued to grow and be refined under subsequent sheriffs Floyd Tidwell, Dick Williams, Gary Penrod, Rod Hoops, John McMahon and current sheriff, Shannon Dicus, such that the department’s air fleet now consists of six Airbus H125 helicopters, one Eurocopter AS350 B3 helicopter, three Bell UH-1H medium helicopters, one Bell 212 medium helicopter, two Mahindra Air Van airplanes, a single Renaissance Twin Commander airplane and two Beechcraft King Air airplanes.
If San Bernardino County were a nation, the sheriff’s air fleet would be larger than the air forces of 86 of the world’s 150 countries.
Sheriff Dicus, who was hired by the sheriff’s department in 1991, served as a military policeman in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division and as a federal law enforcement officer with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs prior to his civilian law enforcement career.
Dicus in 2021 was the inheritor of a political machine that had its inception with Bland’s election as sheriff in 1954 and which was handed down to Tidwell in 1982, to Williams in 1990, Penrod in 1994, Hoops in 2009, McMahon in 2011 and to Dicus in 2021. While Bland beat the then-incumbent sheriff, Eugene Mueller, in his maiden run for sheriff in 1954, since that time, the political machine that Bland created has ensured that no incumbent sheriff has lost since. The political machine, consisting of business and real estate interests from throughout the county who poured money into Bland’s campaign coffers and a cross section of the deputy sheriffs who have provided crucial backing to each incumbent sheriff through monetary support and endorsements, has thrown its support behind each succeeding incumbent sheriff or his handpicked successor.
In this way, Bland designated Tidwell as the undersheriff just prior to his retirement and then backed him in the 1982 election. That was the case in 1990, when Tidwell opted out of running for reelection and he endorsed Williams, who was then the undersheriff, in that year’s election. Williams lasted a single term before he left office, in so doing seeing that his undersheriff, Penrod, took command of the department. After being elected with the full weight of the political support that always swung behind the sheriff or his designee, Penrod was reelected in 1998, 2002 and 2006 without opposition, retiring and riding off into the sunset in 2009 after he had convinced the board of supervisors it should elevate Hoops, who at that time was the department’s third highest ranking member as assistant sheriff, to the department’s top spot. Hoops then ran as an incumbent in 2010, with the full support of the electioneering machinery that had been at the incumbent sheriff’s disposal since Bland had been sheriff, winning handily. As 2012 was winding down, Hoops called an end to his 33-year law enforcement career. Before effectuating his retirement, he recommended that the board of supervisors appoint Assistant Sheriff McMahon to replace him, bypassing Undersheriff Robert Fonzi and the department’s other assistant sheriff, Ron Cochran. Knowing that control over the department’s political machine was being conveyed to McMahon by Hoops, the board of supervisors appointed McMahon. History repeated itself in 2021 when McMahon, after being elected on the basis of his being the incumbent sheriff and his control of the sheriff’s political machine in 2014 and being reelected sheriff in 2018, called it a career, telling the board of supervisors they should replace him with Dicus, who was then serving in the capacity of undersheriff. The board acted in accordance with McMahon’s wishes and Dicus, who is now in control of the sheriff’s political machine, was elected in 2022 as an incumbent.
As sheriff, Dicus has the wherewithal to turn the power of his political machine in any direction he chooses. Accordingly, as he has sought fit to provide his department with ever greater firepower, putting it on equal or superior footing with any civilian policing agency in California or the entire country, the board of supervisors has offered Dicus no resistance.
Since AB 481 essentially allows a law enforcement agency to accumulate weaponry and equipment of whatever level of lethality its jurisdiction’s elected legislative/governing leadership will accede to, Dicus has pushed the envelope.
A token restriction contained within AB 481 is that the law enforcement agency outfitted with military equipment is to submit annual reports to the governing body relating to the use of the equipment, complaints received, internal audits or other reports pertaining to violations of the equipment’s use policy, and costs associated with possessing the equipment. Compliance with that element of the law presents little in the way of complication for the department.
Another requirement pertains to the training of the officers who are to use the equipment in a law enforcement setting. In that arena, there is concern that while the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is meeting the letter of the law, it may be evading the intent and spirit of the law.
Much of the training San Bernardino County’s sheriff’s deputies are receiving with regard to the military equipment coming into the department’s possession takes place at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. That training is predominantly military mission oriented, often involving live fire and contexted upon teaching Marines to bring the maximum degree of force available to them to bear in a combat environment wherein the ultimate objective is to level the enemy and counteract with absolute deadly prejudice the force an armed and determined foe is equally intent on bringing to bear against the participating trainees. Though some of that context – such as facing a well-armed and determined foe – is applicable to the circumstance sheriff’s deputies might face in the course of their assignments when they are called upon to employ the department’s growing inventory of military hardware, they in virtually all cases will not be in a combat situation but more likely in an urban environment largely populated by innocent civilians in the form of bystanders or perhaps hostages. A form of training that would be more appropriate for the deputies would be to learn how to apply – selectively and precisely – the overwhelming and highly destructive firepower at their disposal in a circumstance where, even as their own lives are in danger, those they must target with that firepower are intersticed with or behind or near the very people – the residents of the county – the sheriff’s department exists to protect. Put succinctly, sheriff’s deputies are likely to be called upon to discriminately and delicately wield the overwhelmingly powerful combat equipment they are entrusted with like a surgeon’s scalpel while they are instead training to use it indiscriminately and destructively like a sword.
The department has a prodigious array of military armament and hardware, some of which was donated to the department by the U.S. Military upon it being declared surplus. In other cases, the department purchased the material in its inventory.
Among that equipage are two American Technology Corporation LRAD 1000s, long-range acoustic devices used for emitting amplified public announcements during search warrant services, barricaded suspects, or tactical operations. It cost county taxpayers $45,134 and is in the custody of the department’s intelligence division.
The department’s bureau of administration has a 2001 Fleetwood Southwind mobile command post that cost $92,652.
The department’s specialized investigation division has a 2016 Eagle mobile command post that was acquired for $221,912.50.
The department has a 2014 KME/Kovatch PREDATOR 100 foot-long S2D command vehicle which cost $623,485 and has been used 23 times as a tactical command post.
The department’s emergency operations division aviation unit lists some of the department’s aircraft as military equipment, including three of the Bell UH-1H helicopters and its two Beechcraft King Air airplanes.
Currently the department has 100 Defense Technology Stinger® rubber ball grenades, model #1089, which deliver sensory overwhelming rubber pellets, light, sound, and pepper spray upon explosion. They cost $50 each and have been employed 22 times in the past.
The department has 82 Defense Technology Stinger® .32 caliber rubber balls, model #1087, maximum effect devices that explode to emit rubber pellets, light, and sound. They are most widely used as a crowd management tool. They cost $48 apiece and have been used by the department 34 times.
The department has 61 Defense Technology Pocket Tactical Grenades, model #1016, lightweight launchable devices that expel approximately 0.9 oz. of tear gas, each at a cost of $29. They have been used 14 times.
The department has 92 Combined Systems, Inc. Mini-Bang® Steel Body, model #7290M light sound diversionary devices. They are non-bursting, non-fragmenting, multi-bang mechanisms that produce a sound accompanied by intense bright light. They are used for distracting dangerous suspects during room entries or other high-risk arrest situations. They cost $34 and have been used 51 times.
The department has twenty Ruag Swiss P .50 Caliber 960gr Armor Piercing Rounds, which are used to disrupt vehicles or penetrate barriers. They cost $5 and have been used 10 times.
The department has 390 Hornady .50 Caliber 750gr A-MAX® Match™ model #8270 rounds, a type of ammunition used to disrupt vehicles or penetrate barriers. They cost $4 and have been used 300 times.
The department has 4,500 Duke Defense USA .68 caliber frangible projectiles, which upon deployment from a pneumatic launcher deliver an approximate 3-gram powdered irritant of pepper and incapacitant sprays upon contact. They cost 55 cents each and have been used 855 times.
The department has 8,140 Defense Technology 12-gauge drag stabilized bean bag rounds consisting of cotton material filled with #9 shot. They cost $5 each and have been used 113 times.
The department has 5,676 Defense Technology 40mm Exact Impact Sponges, model #6325, costing $21 each. They have been used 650 times.
The department has 586 Remington 870 12-gauge stun-bag shotguns which fire less lethal “bean bag” rounds. They cost $670 apiece and have been used 135 times.
The department has 33 Tippmann FT12L pneumatic launchers, which deploy .68 caliber less lethal irritant projectiles up to 150 feet. They cost $259 each and have been used 86 times.
The department has 26 SA 2000 pneumatic launchers costing $259 each. They have been used 89 times.
The department has one Pepperball® FTC™ pneumatic launcher, which fires a less lethal .68 caliber irritant projectile. It cost $600 and has been used 130 times.
The department has one Guide Lamp M3 select fire .45 caliber submachine gun.
The department has one Russian AK-47 chambered 7.62 x 39mm select- fire rifle capable of cyclic intervals that is used to address longer range engagements with a heavier round than is traditionally used in the United States.
The department has one Enfield STEN-MKV 9mm caliber select fire submachine gun.
The department has one Kulsprutepistol M45/Swedish-K 9 mm select fire submachine gun.
The department has one Russian PPSH-41 chambered 7.62 X 25mm select fire pistol carbine submachine gun.
The department has two Harrington & Richardson M50 Reising .45 caliber select fire pistol carbine submachine guns.
The department has two Irma MP40 9mm chambered submachine guns.
The department has three Ingram chambered MAC-11 .380 caliber select fire pistol submachine guns.
The department has two IMI-UZI Model-B 9mm chambered semi-automatic pistols.
The department has one Auto Ordnance 1927A1 .45 caliber semi-automatic
The department has four Thompson Variant .45 caliber select fire submachine guns.
The department has one Heckler & Koch .233 caliber chambered semi-automatic HK93 rifle.
The department has one Olympic Arms semi-automatic 5.56 x 45mm CAR-AR rifle. It paid $1,200 for it.
The department hasone Daewoo DR200 semi-automatic .223 caliber rifle.
The department has one Armalite AR180 Rifle chambered 5.56 x 45mm semi-automatic rifle. It paid $2,000 for it.
The department has one Valmet M76 chambered .223 caliber semi-automatic rifle.
The department has one Steyr AUG-P Bullpup chambered 5.56 x 45mm semi-automatic rifle.
The department has two Heckler & Koch HK416D chambered 5.56 x 45mm select fire rifle, which is capable of cyclic intervals.
The department has two Heckler & Koch G36 chambered 5.56 x 45mm semi-automatic rifles.
The department has one FN Herstal FNC Sporter chambered 5.56 x 45mm semi-automatic rifle.
The department has one Barrett .50 Caliber M82A11 semi-automatic rifle that is designed to disrupt vehicle borne threats by disabling key mechanical components. It cost $10, 200. It has been used 26 times.
The department has one TNW Firearms .50 caliber M2 semi-automatic rifle that is designed to disrupt vehicle borne threats by disabling key mechanical components. It cost $9,200.
The department has one Browning .50 Caliber M2 Machine Gun that is designed to disrupt vehicle borne threats by disabling key mechanical components.
The department has 14 other semi-automatic rifles of various types.
Most of the department’s military type firearms are in the possession of its personnel and emergency services bureaus.
The department has a multiplicity of riot control grenades and chemical agents.
The department possesses detonating cord, a flexible plastic tube that is filled with pentaerythritol tetranitrate. Detonating cord creates a blast wave that assists with defeating locking mechanisms.
The department also has 12-gauge TKO breaching rounds, which are shells loaded with a compressed zinc slug, which utilize smokeless powder as a propellant. The TKO is designed to defeat door lock mechanisms, doorknobs, hinges, dead bolts, safety chains, and pad locks on both wooden and hollow core doors.
The department has a supply of blasting caps.
The department has six Transcend Robotics Vantage Patrol Robots, which are used to search the interior of structures and can be used to communicate with subjects via an onboard speaker. They cost $5,000 and have been used twice.
The department has one iRobot First Look, which allows for quick deployment and observation during critical incidents. It cost $25,022 and has been used 12 times.
The department has five other robots.
The department has five small unmanned aviation systems, which are commonly known as drones. They have been used 89 times.
The department has a Caterpillar/EZSPOTR tactical tractor, which is used to port doors and windows, remove heavy objects, and provide mobile cover during tactical operations. It cost $82,945 and has been used 26 times.
The department has two 1980 Cadillac Gage Ranger five-man armored personnel carriers, which are primarily used as rescue vehicles.
The department has a 2006 Lenco 12-man ballistic engineered armored response (BEAR) vehicle, used in the conducting of rescue operations, SWAT operations, and the serving of high-risk search warrants. It cost $279,955 and has been used 43 times.
The department has a 2006 Lenco ballistic engineered armored response counterattack truck (BEARCAT), an armored rescue vehicle capable of protecting approximately eight people while conducting rescue operations, SWAT operations, and high-risk search warrants. It cost $213,352 and has been used 65 times.
The department has a 2004 Lenco BEARCAT capable of protecting approximately eight people. It cost $143,286 and has been used 127 times.
The $356,000 cost of the 2021 Lenco BEARCAT G3 the department is acquiring as a consequence of the board of supervisors’ action on May 9 is to be met by a disbursement out of the county’s general fund.
The $505,493 cost of the Andros Spartan explosive ordnance disposal robot the department is getting will be defrayed by federal seized asset forfeitures.
The Freightliner MT-55 mobile command post, which has a price tag of $430,555, is being paid for by the City of Victorville.
In signing off on the acquisitions, the board of supervisors made a finding that there is a necessity for the equipment because no reasonable alternative could provide for officer and civilian safety and the use of the equipment will safeguard the public’s welfare, safety, civil rights and civil liberties. The board also declared that the equipment coming into the possession of the department is reasonably cost-effective compared to any available alternatives.
-Mark Gutglueck

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