California residents finally have a law designed to dismantle some of the secrecy around domestic acquisitions of warzone surveillance equipment.

The weapons of the United States military—drones, mobile command centers, sound cannons, and more—have been handed off to local law enforcement for years. The transfers have equipped police departments with the ability to redirect surveillance tools and the weapons of war designed for foreign adversaries toward often-faultless targets on U.S. soil. For police departments getting the gear, the process is often secretive. If you don’t think your local law enforcement really needs an aerial surveillance system, or for that matter an MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle), there hasn’t been too much you can do to stop these from joining the arsenal at your neighborhood police department. 

A.B. 481, a new California state law, went into effect at the beginning of May 2022 for equipment already in agencies’ possession and at the beginning of this year for new technologies. It requires democratic control of whether California state or local law enforcement agencies can obtain or use military-grade tools, whether they are received from the federal government, purchased, or utilized via some other channel. Through their elected officials, the public can say “no” to military surveillance and other technology, and it won’t be allowed to come to town.

A.B. 481 requires democratic control of whether California state or local law enforcement agencies can obtain or use military-grade tools, regardless of how it's obtained.

These democratic control measures include the creation of draft use policies that must be publicly posted, an opportunity for residents to organize and be heard, and a vote by the governing body at a public meeting. If the proposal is approved, the police then must provide regular reports on how the equipment has been used, and the public body must perform annual compliance reviews. The bill also mandates that agencies already in possession of military equipment obtain approval from the governing body by the end of 2022, or else stop using  them. 

A.B. 481 is modeled on Community Control of Police Surveillance (CCOPS) laws adopted in 18 communities across the country. It was sponsored by the The Women's Foundation of California, Women’s Policy Institute, Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, and The Stop Terror and Oppression by Police (STOP) Coalition. Where CCOPS ensures democratic control over local acquisition and use of all manner of surveillance technologies, A.B. 481 ensures democratic control over local acquisition and use of military technologies (including military surveillance technologies).

In California, there are more than 500 local law enforcement agencies, and the state is one of the biggest recipients of military transfers. In all, the federal program to transfer surplus military wares has moved more than $7.5 billion worth of equipment to local law enforcement since the program’s inception in 1990. 

Military equipment, for the purposes of the new law, encompasses a broad range of weapons and surveillance tools: 

  • Drones and unmanned vehicles of both the land and sky; 
  • Command & Control Vehicles (trucks equipped with computers and other equipment to collect and transmit various video and information feeds);
  • Tanks, MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles), and Humvees;
  • Weaponized vehicles of any kind; 
  • Firearms of greater than .50 caliber;
  • Taser Shockwaves and LRADs (long-range acoustic devices, also known as sound canons); and
  • Projectile launchers.

It is important for there to be more transparency into law enforcement practices, and for communities to have democratic control of surplus military transfers, particularly for high-tech surveillance equipment. The enactment of A.B. 481 is an important step forward. 

It is important for there to be more transparency into law enforcement practices, and for communities to have democratic control of surplus military transfers, particularly for high-tech surveillance equipment. 

The proposed “military equipment use policy” is now the first step of the process for agencies trying to get military gear. This is a publicly available, written document that would govern the state or local agency’s use of this military equipment. It needs to do a few things: 

  • address the legal rules governing the use of the equipment;
  • outline the training required; and
  • describe the procedure by which the public can make complaints. 

A law enforcement agency then needs to get the approval of the jurisdiction’s governing body, like the City Council, in the form of a public meeting. The policy and other relevant materials need to be made available to the public on the agencies' website at least 30 days in advance. Residents who oppose the military equipment can use that month to organize in opposition.

Once approval is granted, the agency isn’t just free to use the equipment indefinitely. There will be an annual review for compliance with the use policy, based on an annual military equipment report. That report needs to contain: 

  • The quantity possessed for each type of military equipment;
  • A summary of how and for what purpose the military equipment was used;
  • A summary of any complaints or concerns received concerning the military equipment;
  • The results of any internal audits; 
  • Any information about violations of the use policy and the consequences;
  • The total annual cost for each type of military equipment, including acquisition, personnel, training, transportation, maintenance, storage, upgrade, and other ongoing costs, and from what source funds will be drawn the following year; and
  • The quantity sought for each type of additional military equipment the law enforcement agency intends to acquire in the next year.

Agencies have started posting their materials online, like these from Milpitas and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Unfortunately, there have been rumblings from some in law enforcement against the need to disclose whether they have war-grade equipment. As we’ve seen in our compliance review of S.B. 978, which requires California police departments to post their policies online, adherence to new accountability measures can’t be taken for granted. Still, whether they like it or not, A.B. 481 makes hiding military-grade tools against the law for law enforcement.