Over Labor Day weekend, sports players all over the United States knelt to protest police killings of black Americans. Meanwhile, I watched Sgts. Spencer Fomby and Rashawn Cummings, two Berkeley police officers involved in fatal civilian shootings, walk into an abandoned building in Hayward, CA, to practice killing people in a training exercise.
Fomby and Cummings are members of the Berkeley Police Department’s Special Response Unit, and the training exercise was based on the Garland, TX, shooting, where two men opened fire outside a contest for Prophet Muhammad cartoons last year. Cummings and Fomby “killed” one of four “bad guys” during the training. (In real life, they pulled the trigger in controversial fatal shootings in 2008 and 2010, respectively. Both were later cleared of wrongdoing.)
The Garland shooting was one of 36 real-life mass murders recreated in a single weekend at Urban Shield, America’s largest police-training exercise. To make things realistic, other officers acted as the terrorists and victims. “If you don’t shut up, we’re gonna chop you in two,” an officer playing an ISIS terrorist said, as he held a replica gun to the head of a screaming woman playing a hostage.
Then the door burst open, kicked in by a Berkeley SWAT team member. The room filled with smoke, followed by officers in camouflage fatigues. They immediately shot the terrorists with simulation ammo from assault-rifle replicas. Then the officers gave first aid to an ultra-realistic twitching, bleeding medical mannequin that they’d been told was an officer whose leg had been hacked off by a terrorist wielding a machete. A California Highway Patrol officer from Vallejo who oversaw the Hayward training exercise gave a loud whoop when it ended. “That was beautiful,” he told the team.
This training exercise, like everything else at Urban Shield, seems to exist in a world where the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement never happened. The event has remained impervious to the national debate over lethal force in policing, and still promotes the militarized tactics for which it is often criticized. The 2016 training immersed officers in 48 hours of mass-casualty scenarios requiring use of force, and offered no discussion of de-escalation, mental health, or unconscious bias.
When I asked officers at Urban Shield 2016 whether anything had changed in response to BLM, I was met with puzzlement, denial, or annoyance.
“I don’t see how Black Lives Matter is relevant,” said Sgt. Ray Kelly, an Urban Shield spokesperson from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office who rejected the idea that racial bias might ever factor into emergency responses. “We’re going to treat an active shooter the same regardless of their background.”
But Kelly may be wrong about that. Several studies have found evidence of racial bias when police use force in community policing contexts. Racial bias could play a role in an active shooter crisis, just as it does in other police interactions.
Urban Shield focuses on training for acute emergencies, not the kinds of community policing-gone-wrong situations with which BLM is most concerned. But there’s a continuum between these two contexts, given that SWAT teams are often used in mundane arrests for drug possession.
Police accountability activists worry that Urban Shield’s emergency tactics “end up becoming normalized in more mundane situations, like traffic stops or routine patrolling,” Mohamed Shehk, spokesperson for prison abolition group Critical Resistance, told me. He said Urban Shield encourages a police mindset of “approaching every situation as though there's a threat to be neutralized.”
U.S. police academies have always taught de-escalation skills, but de-escalation is still less emphasized than use of force. A 2012 study conducted by nonprofit research group the Police Executive Research Forum found that on average, officers receive 107 hours of firearms and tactical training, but only eight hours of de-escalation training. Urban Shield’s 48 hours of intense tactical training could leave an imprint that overrides briefer and less intense de-escalation exercises.
Despite Kelly’s claim of Urban Shield’s racial neutrality, the training events had one striking racial orientation. Of 36 SWAT training events, I was able to learn details about nine, of which seven involved Muslim or Middle Eastern terrorists. SWAT teams re-enacted the San Bernardino shooting, the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Sydney café attack, the Garland shootout, the Fort Hood shooting, the Mali attack, and the Boko Haram kidnapping of schoolgirls. Two major recent attacks perpetrated by white supremacists were not recreated, however: Dylann Roof’s mass shooting of black churchgoers and the Planned Parenthood shooting.
Every officer I talked to referred to “the bad guys,” as though they’re a discrete group of people who can be easily recognized. Kelly lumped together “active shooters, lone suspects, organized criminals, domestic and international terrorists,” saying, “We just call them bad guys.”
But judging “bad guys” based on gut instinct is at the core of recent police killings of black Americans. "That looks like a bad dude," said one of the officers who killed Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man who was shot with his hands up after his car broke down on the way home from music-appreciation class.
Clearly, there’s a difference between a traffic stop and an active-shooter situation. However, active-shooter situations are not always clearly defined, and the tactics learned at Urban Shield could end up shaping police behavior in situations that they wrongly perceive as life-threatening emergencies.
The training at Urban Shield couldn’t be more at odds with two major recent recommendations from Black Lives Matter about police use-of-force policies: that police exhaust all other avenues before shooting, and that departments require an attempt at de-escalation no matter the situation.
Of the 36 SWAT exercises at Urban Shield, 26 involved lethal force. In the Garland training scenario, officers couldn’t get full marks without killing the suspects.
The governing assumption at Urban Shield is that in certain kinds of emergencies, de-escalation is never on the table. “You're not going to spend time negotiating with an active shooter or bomber. You're going to stop the threat to save lives,” Kelly said.
But the real world is not so simple.
Fomby and Cummings told a reporter about the value of de-escalation in July, while Fomby created the Berkeley Police Department’s new de-escalation course, which rolled out in June. I wanted to ask them whether they felt a disconnect between their interest in de-escalation and the training they were getting at Urban Shield. Both officers were willing to talk to me, but were barred from doing so by their supervisor.
The organizer of the Garland shooting scenario, a transit police officer, proudly told me that the event was highly realistic because it was based on the news. But was it really? The scenario doubled the number of ISIS shooters and had them cut off a police officer’s leg using a machete—an unprecedented event in American history.
This dark worldview is summed up in Urban Shield’s tagline: “Intense Training for Intense Times.” It’s a rationale for everything from assault rifles to armored tanks.
“We need more weapons because the bad guys have more weapons,” Dana Unger, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security, told me at Urban Shield. “They have rifles, so we need tanks.”
“We’ve gone from responding to attacks to being the targets of attacks,” Urban Shield spokesperson Ray Kelly said, citing the five Dallas police officers killed in July. But this idea is overstated since the number of police killed by firearms is lower than it’s ever been, according to a 2015 report from conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.
Multiple officers at Urban Shield also told me that police simply never use too much force. “I don’t believe SWAT teams are overused,” Special Agent Unger said. In fact, SWAT raids have increased from 3,000 a year in the 1980s to 50,000 a year in 2015, and there’s no reason to assume that will slow down.
Officer Hill, who introduced himself to me as "an ex-military ex-cop," defended police use of equipment like armored tanks with circular logic: “They need it because they need it.” Hill wouldn’t give me his full name, like several officers I spoke to at Urban Shield, possibly because of wariness about hostile media coverage.
Then he added, as if to clear things up, “They don’t get equipment they don’t need. They don’t use equipment they don’t need.”
But America’s police unquestionably do use more force than they need. More than 55,000 Americans were killed or hospitalized by police force in a single year, 2012, according to a study in the British Medical Journal. They’re also responsible for one in 13 gun killings in the U.S. In contrast, British police killed no one in 2015.
When police receive training at Urban Shield, they’re also bombarded with marketing from military-weapons manufacturers, which sell state-of-the art combat weaponry at a tradeshow that takes place the day before the trainings begin. More than half of the tables at this show displayed guns, armor, or equipment made to look like guns, and some of these weapons are lent to officers to try out during the training exercises.
Much of the gear was marketed in a war game-esque way that might appeal to gamers who enjoy Call of Duty. One vendor sold shirts with slogans like “Guns and coffee” and “Let me die in a pile of empty brass.” Two burly men representing RAP4, the paintball manufacturer, promoted its rubber bullet guns as a “less lethal” police weapon while also handing out fliers for a paintball game. The Pepper Ball ammo company displayed colorful ammunition like gumballs in glass jars. One of the official speakers, Charles Redlinger, a former U.S. Marine and Atlanta-based police officer, plugged his tourism company, which offers special ops tactical vacations in Jordan. Another vendor table staffed by beautifully coiffed blonde women urged law enforcers to “Switch to Bodyarmor Sports Drink.”
I spent a three-day weekend watching Urban Shield’s police trainings and interviewing officers. They all essentially said the same thing, give or take a few words: We need to train for real-life emergencies and protect ourselves from the bad guys. Even I found myself starting to accept their logic—of course they do! I don't want these nice officers to get shot!
Attending Urban Shield helped me understand something that had previously puzzled me; it partly explains why you rarely see police breaking ranks to condemn other officers when civilians are shot. They’re used to thinking of targets of police force as “the bad guys"—and that’s a simple message with a lot of power.
Mary Noble is managing editor at Topix. She's British and writes about American politics for fun. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.