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Alameda County leaders reaffirm changes to Urban Shield

OAKLAND — Alameda County supervisors reaffirmed their commitment to transform the controversial first responder training exercise “Urban Shield,” despite its top organizer warning the move might threaten its existence.
The sweeping overhaul — initially approved Feb. 26 and supported again Tuesday — calls for the event to focus on training for earthquakes and other disasters instead of SWAT military-style exercises fighting crime or terrorism.
Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern, whose offices runs Urban Shield, said the shift could cause the Department of Homeland Security to pull the $5.5 million grant that helps pay for the program.
“I believe you are jeopardizing the grant,” Ahern told the board, which voted 3-2 to back recommendations drafted by an ad hoc committee that reviewed the annual event.
The board’s decision came at the end of five-hour hearing, when dozens of speakers called for revamping the exercise.
Established 12 years ago, Urban Shield brings first responders from multiple agencies to train to coordinate efforts in the event of a major emergency.
Participants have come from throughout the Bay Area, as well as Israel, Bahrain and other countries.
“We are saying, ‘Let’s find a better way to do this,’ ” Supervisor Wilma Chan said.
Urban Shield has come under fire because it features first responders training and competing in military-style gear and vehicles, which critics say is a wrong approach to law enforcement.
It also has a trade expo where weapons have been showcased, and a white nationalist group operated a stand at a past expo.
“If you let the sheriff set the terms for the program, this is what you will get,” said John Lindsay-Poland, who served on the ad hoc committee.
Fremont police Chief Kimberly Petersen said the public expects police and firefighters to be ready to respond in a crisis.
“You should also make sure that we are prepared — prepared to save lives,” Petersen said.
The Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative, which is made up of representatives of 12 Northern California counties and distributes the federal grant, will review whether to approve the new direction on Thursday.
Supervisors decided to consider the ad hoc committee’s recommendations again Tuesday after critics accused Ahern of attempting to sabotage the changes by claiming they would violate funding guidelines.
“It’s really unfortunate that the sheriff is trying to undermine this process,” said Mohamed Shehk of the Stop Urban Shield Coalition. “What we are doing is expanding training (to the public).
Tuesday’s board decision also followed Ahern and the committee failing to resolve disagreements on some of the 63 recommended changes, such as changing the exercise’s name and eliminating SWAT-style deployment scenarios, which supervisors hoped would happen following the initial approval last month.
According to Ahern, Alameda County’s agreement with federal authorities requires teaching skills to fight terrorism to receive the grant money, which he said might now be distributed to agencies outside Alameda County.
Supervisors Richard Valle, Chan and Keith Carson voted to approve the changes. Supervisors Nate Miley and Scott Haggerty voted against them.
Chan said it was “a huge mischaracterization” to claim people wanted to eliminate the training program instead of just its focus.
But Miley noted that the Bay Area is a potential target for a terrorist attack and said he feared implementing the recommendations will put Alameda County at risk of losing money needed for improving first responder skills.
“I am not going to take any action that would jeopardize the funding,” Miley said.
The change in Urban Shield’s direction has been in the works since March last year, when supervisors established the ad hoc committee to review the event and make recommendations on how it should operate.
Each supervisor appointed someone to the five-member committee, which included a Fremont police officer and a representative from the Stop Urban Shield Coalition.

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