“I DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW WE AS A SOCIETY ACCEPT THESE WEAPONS OF WAR ON CIVILIANS. THESE ARE WEAPONS OF WAR INTENDED TO MAIM, AND SOMETIMES TO KILL.”
Those were the words of a community member at a City Council hearing on the military weapons used by police in Santa Cruz, California.
During the hearing, police revealed that their arsenal includes a BearCat armored vehicle, AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles, and chemical agents, including tear gas. The disclosure disturbed some community members—who urged elected officials to limit how these weapons could be used.
For over a year, communities across California have used a new state law to advocate for police demilitarization. The law, AB 481, brings a new level of transparency and accountability by requiring law enforcement agencies to disclose what military equipment they have and propose a policy for its use. These policies must be approved or rejected by civilian elected officials in a public hearing.
The law gives Californians unprecedented opportunities to pressure elected officials to take a public stand against police militarization. It is also a chance to end law enforcement’s sole discretion about what makes communities safer—or the gear it has in its possession, which generates more risk. AFSC’s California Healing Justice Program has been supporting local activists to do just that. We have researched the holdings of hundreds of police departments in California, filing 351 public records requests on police militarization. And we have shared this information with local activists, provided analysis of proposed policies, and helped community members advocate for change.
In multiple cities, we have seen how community activism has moved elected officials to oppose police departments’ policies when they hadn’t before. Here are some examples of the progress we’ve made over the past year:
Banning Lethal Robots
Last November, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted to allow police to use lethally armed robots. Outraged community members and groups, including AFSC, immediately spoke out. The protests at city hall, national media coverage, and intense public pressure worked. Several lawmakers changed their positions. And in a complete reversal, the Board of Supervisors voted the following week to ban police robots from using deadly force.
In Oakland, AFSC staff questioned police at a public hearing about how they planned to use the robot in their inventory. Police officials revealed that they intended to keep the option of using their robot to kill. But after the media reported on this exchange, Oakland Police changed course. Now the department’s policy prohibits lethal use of its robot.
Keeping New Weapons From Abusive Jail Staff
In Alameda County, community activists helped stop more weapons from being supplied to a jail with a history of violence against the people in its custody. In recent years, people incarcerated in Santa Rita Jail have faced sadistic, inhumane treatment, including beatings ordered by deputies. Over the past eight years, at least 60 people have died in the facility.
Last year, Alameda County’s sheriff proposed a policy that included acquiring more PepperBall launchers for the jail—adding to the 114 launchers it already had. The policy would have placed no restrictions on the additional weapons. Officers would be able to use them indiscriminately—and even fire them at people point-blank or at someone’s face, neck, or vital organs.
But persistent activists refused to let that happen, showing up at county meetings to speak out. Eventually, a county supervisor—who had been one of the sheriff’s strongest supporters—declared he would vote “no” on the proposal if the PepperBalls were part of the policy.
Increasing Transparency And Accountability
In Richmond, the police department and attorneys heavily revised their proposed usage policy, based on AFSC’s recommendations and community demands. The resulting policy limited authorized uses for assault rifles, projectile launchers, and tear gas, among other equipment. Another change now prohibits police from using flashbangs when encountering someone in a mental health crisis.
The City of Orange refused to disclose its recent purchases of militarized equipment, despite requirements under AB 481. So in April 2022, AFSC successfully sued the city for that information. A few weeks after being formally served, the City of Orange publicly produced all the public records we had requested.
In Santa Cruz, the police department initially refused to include its 70 AR-15 style “patrol rifles” in its inventory of military-grade equipment. Police argued the rifles were “standard issue.” With support from AFSC, a small group of activists urged councilmembers to reject that argument. These activists pointed out that these rifles weren’t carried by bicycle cops or police officers patrolling popular beach areas—and therefore could not be considered standard issue. Councilmembers agreed and told police to update its public inventory to reflect this information.
Community activists have made real progress in demanding transparency and accountability from police. But we have much more work ahead. Some law enforcement agencies have yet to propose a policy for elected officials and the public to review. Other agencies have proposed policies that place no limits on how police officers deploy military-grade weapons in our communities.
That’s why AFSC and partners are keeping up the pressure on local governments to comply with the new law. This year, police departments will have to start publishing annual reports on how they’re using militarized equipment—and elected officials will reevaluate existing policies. AFSC is supporting activists to analyze these reports and advocate with city councils and county supervisors. Making changes now is critical to keeping our communities safe.
To learn more about California’s AB 481 and how community organizers are using it to create change, visit: AFSC.ORG/AB481REPORTTOOLKIT