The SBPD’s BearCat armored vehicle responds to reports of a woman with a handgun barricaded inside her Milpas Street apartment back in 2012. | Credit: Paul Wellmann file)

City Council adopted a new amendment to Santa Barbara Police Department policy Tuesday, officially approving the use of its military-grade equipment in response to Assembly Bill 481, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom last September.

The bill requires all law enforcement agencies in the state to seek approval in a public meeting from an appropriate governing body to allow for use of “military equipment,” such as unmanned robots, armored vehicles, assault rifles, and “less-lethal” weapons.

According to Santa Barbara Police spokesperson Sergeant Ethan Ragsdale, the amendment wouldn’t change much in the deployment of the department’s tactical equipment, but it would keep them above board as related to the new state legislation.

The specifics of the amendment to the department policy require a “specific equipment coordinator,” who would be designated by the chief of police, to act as a liaison between the city and the police department, coordinating the use and maintenance of all military-grade equipment. The amendment would also require the department to provide a full inventory of equipment that qualifies as military use, which the department already has published on its site for 2022.

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The biggest items in the department’s inventory are the $25,000 unmanned iRobot, used in situations like opening suspicious packages; the $315,000 Lenco BearCat, an armored all-terrain vehicle that was used by search-and-rescue teams following the 1/9 Debris Flow; and the $250,000 Mobile Incident Command (MIC) Vehicle, a roaming law enforcement office used in natural disasters, SWAT team incidents, or large-scale events.

The list also includes an in-depth inventory of all military-grade weapons, from 40mm less-lethal round launchers to distraction devices to an arsenal of more than 100 high-end rifles — 46 Colt M4s, 34 Colt AR-15s, 21 Colt M-16s, and at least 10 tactical sniper rifles. The inventory also provides information on the annual maintenance and training involved for each piece of equipment. 

The equipment itself is used sparingly, but are available for intense situations in which officer and public safety are top priority. “I can only remember a few times in the past year,” Ragsdale said. In 2021, there were at least two public incidents that were resolved using this military equipment. In May, an armed suspect barricaded himself in an apartment on Oceano Avenue, forcing a shelter-in-place order in the surrounding areas, including Santa Barbara City College’s West Campus. After hours of tense standoff, the SWAT team deployed a chemical agent and was able to arrest the suspect without further incident. In August, a man wielding two knives was acting erratically, and police were able to subdue him after using rubber projectiles. In both instances, no injuries were reported.

Ragsdale said that the full military use policy is available on the department’s website, with more information on the inventory and Assembly Bill 481.

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