In 2016 I bluffed my way into Urban Shield, the massive police weapons fair in Pleasanton, California, that is also one of the world’s largest police training exercises. What happens here shapes policing all over the US. What I saw shocked me. The training exercises were far more racist than I could ever have imagined.
Urban Shield is really two different events: A weapons trade show in Pleasanton, and a 48-hour SWAT training exercise at locations all over the Bay. When I arrived at the weapons expo in Pleasanton, security was tight. Only one gate was open to cars. Police checked credentials through car windows. I hadn’t pre-arranged a press pass. But I showed my press pass to a cop and asked whether they’d accept me, a blogger for the Huffington Post. To my surprise, the answer was yes.
The exhibition hall was surrounded by hundreds of cops clustered in small groups, each group wearing different matching camo and tactical gear. I learned later that these teams would compete in Urban Shield’s 48-hour training exercise, which involved role-playing 36 mass casualty attacks on zero hours of sleep.
Then I went into the exhibition hall, which was full of tables loaded with weapons: AR-15s, body armor, rifle scopes.
One of the first things I saw was a medical mannequin of a bomb victim with its leg ripped off, blood spurting, for police to practice tourniquets on (pictured). I was told that the dummy, body armor, and guns would be used in the 48-hour training, so that police could try them before buying for their departments.
The cops I talked to were cagey about where the weekend’s tactical training exercises would take place, but the sales rep for the medical mannequins gave me two addresses.
On Saturday I showed up at the first location, an abandoned Meals-on-Wheels distribution center in Hayward. My press pass got me access to the scenario’s command center (pictured). Then I was taken backstage to observe the roleplay. I watched a Berkeley SWAT team kick in a door and gun down “ISIS terrorists” who had “kidnapped” a female office worker. A cop playing an “ISIS terrorist” told the screaming woman, “If you don’t shut up, we’re gonna chop you in two.” Then he laughed.
The role-play’s organizer, a transit cop, told me he was proud of the scenario’s realism. But the role-play involved one strikingly unrealistic element: A police officer’s leg was hacked off by a machete-wielding terrorist (see image above). Nothing like this has ever happened on American soil. The experience seems designed to fire up participating SWAT teams with fear and rage against a terrorist threat that is statistically negligible. How does that serve America’s public?
On Sunday, I watched police play-act a raid on a Boko Haram-style kidnapping set in a major US city. The Boko Haram terrorists were represented by human-like mannequins made to look like terrorists who had blown themselves up (pictured below). I was upset, but not surprised, to see that the terrorist mannequins were all brown people. The kidnapped women were role-played by local white women. So, dozens of America’s SWAT teams role-played rescuing a group of terrified, unarmed white women from brutal African kidnappers. The racist politics were absurdly on the nose.
Humans are shaped by their cultural conditioning, and police are human beings. Thus, Urban Shield conditions officers to expect terroristic threats from non-white people (as I reported here), and to respond with overwhelming force. Of the nine training events I learned details of, seven involved non-white terrorists. Dozens of SWAT teams from all over America spend 48 hours, without a break, role-playing these situations. De-escalation is almost never an option — in the scenarios I witnessed, the SWAT teams could only score full marks if they killed all the “terrorists.”
In my unscientific judgment, that’s got to leave a psychological imprint. It promotes implicit bias. It predisposes America’s SWAT teams to view non-white Americans as potential terrorists. And it seems likely to make participating cops much more, not less, likely to kill black and brown Americans.
Aside from promoting implicit bias, Urban Shield takes a mutual-assured destruction approach to the police use of military weapons. As far as cops at Urban Shield are concerned, escalating to a SWAT team is always the right move. “I don’t believe SWAT teams are overused,” said Dana Unger, a DHS Special Agent, at Urban Shield 2016. “We need more weapons because the bad guys have more weapons,” she added. “They have rifles, so we need tanks.”
In many ways Urban Shield treats tactical training as a game. The t-shirts on sale, such as this one, glorify shooting to kill:
The technology on display anticipates a disturbing future in which police can shoot people without needing to be in sight of them. This remote-controlled mini-tank can be sent into a room, equipped with a gun, to shoot suspects before the actual human police enter:
Urban Shield promotes police militarization and implicit bias. It influences police departments across the US. If those things worry you too, consider joining the campaign to Stop Urban Shield. The campaign is backed by these 52 organizations. And if you’re in the Bay Area, you can join the rally in Oakland on Friday, September 8th, at 4pm: All Out To Stop Urban Shield!