Response to Berkeley robbery leads to questions regarding police militarization

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Police use of special units in camouflage uniforms and an armored vehicle while in search of an alleged armed robber in a residential area July 27 has led some to question whether the response was appropriate.

According to Berkeley Police Department Chief Michael Meehan, police received reports of an armed robbery — at Wash & Shop Laundromat on Sacramento Street — by a young male who had brandished a revolver, demanded cash, thrown the owner to the ground and run into the nearby residential area.

In response, BPD sent in a special response team, which requested a search dog from Oakland Police Department and an armored van from Alameda Police Department in order to set up a perimeter and pursue the suspect. After about five hours of searching, police were unable to locate the suspect.

George Lippman, chair of the city’s Peace and Justice Commission, questioned why camouflage was used in Berkeley’s urban setting.

“If it doesn’t help you fit into the urban setting,” Lippman said, “is it perhaps a psychological tactic specifically intimidating? Is it intimidating to the subject of the manhunt? Is it intimidating to the entire neighborhood?”

The response to the laundromat robbery was discussed as part of a city Police Review Commission meeting Wednesday, but Meehan did not yet have a full report from his staff.

Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin sent a letter Wednesday to Meehan and Interim City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley expressing concerns he shared with his constituents about “the nature and scale of the police response.”

Meehan explained Friday that the suspect posed a “particular danger,” given that he allegedly had a gun, demonstrated violence by throwing the laundromat’s owner to the ground, was in a residential area and was reportedly on a rooftop. The heightened threat necessitated the use of the special response team, Meehan said.

“It’s important to keep in mind that armed robbery is very serious and poses a great danger to the people in the laundromat and to the people nearby,” said Justin McCrary, a UC Berkeley School of Law professor, who has written about the effects of police on crime.

City Council has often discussed police militarization over the last few years, and this subject has been “something we’ve specifically spoken out against in the past,” Arreguin said.

Outcry from the mayor, City Council and some Berkeley residents halted a 2012 attempt by BPD to apply for federal funding to purchase an armored vehicle. Additionally, after Black Lives Matter protesters in December were met with the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, critiques regarding militarization and use of force followed.

McCrary, however, said that if police had under-responded or underestimated the threat of the armed robber, they would have been criticized for their inaction.

“For myself and probably for most people, I don’t really care whether you’re wearing military fatigues or black pants,” McCrary said. “What I really care about is whether police are trying to take care of the community and help people get along with their lives.”

Contact Ethan Walker at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ethannwalker.