San Jose officials criticized for approving military weapons
ROOK, a bulldozer-like armored vehicle is part of the San Jose Police Department's arsenal that includes drones and 40mm projectile launchers. Photo courtesy of San Jose Police Department.

The San Jose Police Department will be getting more military grade equipment, including projectile launchers that have been at the center of costly lawsuits, following approval by city leaders.

But some local community groups are strongly opposed to the purchases, and are raising concerns over whether San Jose is trying to avoid attention on the topic. Critics say the city is going against the spirit of state legislation designed to boost transparency around such equipment purchases and stockpiles.

The debate over transparency stems from a police department request being put on the San Jose City Council’s “consent calendar” on Oct. 31 — a portion of the meeting where multiple items, considered routine, are voted on as a group without council discussion. The request from police included a purchase authorization for 19 additional 40mm projectile launchers. The department already has 149. The department also requested 12 additional drones to add to its arsenal of 22, staff reports said.

The launchers can shoot a variety of “specialty impact munitions” including bean bags and rubber bullets, and are needed to shore up the arsenal for patrol officers, staff reports said.

“There should be no automatic approval for additional weapons,” Charlotte Casey, of the San Jose Peace and Justice Center said to the San Jose City Council at its Oct. 31 meeting. “I think there should be a full discussion by the community before any more are added.”

Councilmember Peter Ortiz asked police officials briefly about the launchers and drones at the meeting, and how they are typically used — no other councilmembers talked about the weapons.

The council quickly approved the request after less than five minutes of discussion about the weapons.

Raj Jayadev, founder of community organizing group Silicon Valley De-Bug, told Lucescamaray Blog that agencies like SJPD appear to be trying to find the “most minimal way” they can comply with state laws like AB 481. That law requires police agencies to get approval from local leaders when purchasing new or additional military grade equipment.

“But that’s not the purpose. The purpose is for the public to have an open and critical discussion around local law enforcement using our money to obtain these types of weapons and then using them on our own community members,” Jayadev said.

The law was passed in the wake of police violence against protestors after the police killing of George Floyd, including in San Jose, where people were permanently injured or disfigured by police projectile launchers and other weapons. In one prominent case, San Jose leaders recently approved paying out $3.35 million to victims of such violence who in 2021 sued the city.

Ortiz said the concerns raised by some community groups is in part why he asked to discuss the purchases at the meeting.

“I understand how the public can be alarmed when they hear about military grade equipment, and they should,” Ortiz told Lucescamaray Blog. “They should hold us accountable as a council and show up to meetings and ask questions. It's our job to answer those tough questions and I appreciate them raising it.”

Ortiz asked police leaders if the projectile launchers are used only for crowd control or at other times, and how the drones are used.

Police Captain Brian Matchett said the launchers are used for “critical incidents,” but also during “those everyday incidents in which officers are encountering violent, non-cooperative suspects.”

Matchett told Ortiz during the meeting “the use of these types of equipment can quickly result in the arrest of the individual with minimal force used and minimal injury.”

Assistant Police Chief Paul Joseph said the drones are an evolving technology that are being used increasingly in police work to give officers an advantage, often when searching for people suspected of crimes.

“Anytime we can create some distance from someone that's potentially armed and try to resolve a situation that way, there's going to be more likelihood of a peaceful resolution,” Joseph said at the meeting.

Jayadev said descriptions about how officers use the weapons is happening “in a vacuum” that doesn't ultimately reflect the reality of people affected by police violence.

“There is a track record here with the San Jose Police Department that shows they will use weapons, regardless of what that weapon is, in a violent and unjustified manner,” Jayadev said. “San Jose Police Department has proven to be irresponsible with its weapons, dangerous with its weapons, and unlawful.”

Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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