Friday, Sept. 13, was a typical day for residents of 1910 Oxford St. in Berkeley—except for the commotion of a heavily armed SWAT team racing up the back stairway of a neighboring University building on Berkeley Way.
“It was definitely weird to see that many people mobilized and in full uniform,” said Elise Craig, who lives on the third floor of 1910 Oxford St.
A radical animals rights group was holding several students hostage in a former laboratory, and the SWAT team was rushing to meet them with guns drawn. Sharp reports of gunfire came moments later—as officers in the parking lot below sipped coffee and bottled water.
In reality, the operation was one of 24 terrorism-themed scenarios conducted in the Bay Area by 26 tactical teams as part of a continuous 50-hour event called Urban Shield. Hosted for the second year running by the Alameda County sheriff and sponsored in part by Department of Homeland Security funds and corporate sponsors, Urban Shield was billed as the largest Homeland Security drill in the nation.
More than 1,600 officers from California and the East Coast took part in the scenarios, which included hostage rescue, school takeovers, airplane hijackings, dignitary protection, prison riots, industrial sabotage, and live shooter response.
Homeland Security drills have become more frequent. On Sept. 23, a large-scale preparedness exercise took place in train stations across the East Coast.
While a security event as large as Urban Shield was bound to attract media attention, the timing and nature of the operation is conspicuous in light of the Aug. 27 raid on the Long Haul Infoshop by UC Berkeley police. An affidavit filed in Alameda County Superior Court to support a UCPD’s search warrant application cited threats to university researchers who experiment on animals as justification.
The Berkeley Way scenario, designed by UCPD, has drawn particular criticism. Animal rights activists such as the Animal Liberation Front have destroyed property belonging to animal researchers, as in the Aug. 2 firebombings in Santa Cruz. However, there is no record of the ALF or similar organizations taking hostages.
“Putting a label on a group is very dangerous,” said James B. Chanin, a local civil rights attorney. “That’s not disaster training, that’s propaganda.”
Chanin, who was a founding member of the Berkeley Police Review Commission, says there is a history of injecting politics into police training.
He recalled a Berkeley Police crowd control exercise in the 1970s that involved armed “demonstrators” equipped with shotguns and United Farm Workers banners. The police commission subsequently banned the department from repeating such training.
In particular, Chanin worries about law enforcement holding incorrect notions about animal rights activists, many of whom are engaging in constitutionally protected activities.
“If there’s a subliminal message that that’s what these groups do, then it’s inappropriate training,” Chanin said.
Calls to the UC Police Department for comment were not returned.
Local law enforcement viewed Urban Shield as an invaluable learning opportunity to hone skills that can be applied to a variety of scenarios.
“All these are transferable skill sets for the Barricaded Subject Hostage Negotiation Team,” said Officer Andrew Frankel, Berkeley Police Department spokesman. The BSHNT is the Berkeley Police equivalent of a SWAT team. Berkeley police helped staff the Berkeley Way simulation, Frankel said, but did not participate in the planning process.
Coordinating disparate agencies can come in particularly useful during natural disasters, such as earthquakes. “It does more for natural disaster training than for tactical operations, from our perspective,” said Sgt. J.D. Nelson, a spokesman for the Alameda County sheriff.
The sheriff’s office is the lead agency during any natural disaster, said Nelson, and Urban Shield provided a chance to gauge their ability to coordinate multiple agencies and test out emergency equipment.
Corporate sponsors also donated equipment for live-action trials. Blackwater Worldwide, a much-criticized military contracting firm, donated a prototype vehicle to the aircraft hijacking scenario at Oakland International airport.
Ensuring that the public is aware of such large-scale drills is critical. “Make sure the population doesn’t get terrorized by the exercise,” said security expert Bruce Schneier.
To spread awareness of Urban Shield, local police departments reached out to homeowners associations and issued press releases prior to the weekend.
Elise Craig’s landlord posted a notice in her elevator the day before Urban Shield began. Although she became accustomed to preparedness drills complete with role-playing victims and fake blood while living in Washington, D.C., the Sacramento native says the SWAT teams and early-morning gunfire would have caught her off-guard without advance warning.
“If you didn’t know what it was,” she said, “it would have been really scary.”