City Council discusses police militarization, agreements, contracts at meeting

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Kevin Cheung/File

Berkeley City Council approved agreements between the Berkeley Police Department and external organizations at its regular meeting Tuesday.

During the meeting, many expressed concerns over the approval of agreements made by BPD with other law enforcement agencies, police departments and private security organizations. In addition, the council rejected a rezoning proposition for a property located on Channing Way and approved a bike-share proposal for the city.

Bulmaro Vicente, ASUC senator and former police review commissioner, detailed his experiences with BPD, saying he allegedly saw “unprofessional” behavior that was “shocking.” He called for police to implement “better cultural sensitivity training.”

Berkeley police participate in the training program Urban Shield through the Urban Areas Security Initiative, or UASI, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security program whose contract was included in those up for approval by the council.

Urban Shield, described on its website as a “multi-layered training exercise to enhance the skills and abilities of regional first responders,” was criticized by numerous speakers at the meeting for its alleged militarized tactics.

Urban Shield is a “SWAT team tactics exercise, drawn from real world events,” according to BPD Chief Michael Meehan. Meehan said the department sends one eight-person team to the exercise every year.

Councilmember Max Anderson called the program “a surrogate combat testosterone fest” during the meeting.

“The culture that’s cultivated by the type of training you received becomes the way you conduct yourselves,” Anderson said, recalling his service in the U.S. Marine Corps. “When military thinking goes in our police ranks, it becomes a problem.”

At the meeting, Councilmember Kriss Worthington proposed a one-year suspension from participating in the Urban Shield program, which failed.

In support of the program, Councilmember Darryl Moore called attention to the recent shooting in San Bernardino, saying, “I would hope that our police officers would be prepared to combat terrorism,” during the meeting.

According to a memo by the city Peace and Justice Commission distributed during the meeting, the commission opposes BPD’s involvement with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, or NCRIC, a law enforcement information-sharing center. The commission cited the organization’s Suspicious Activity Reports, which it alleged are “disturbing examples of reportage on constitutionally protected speech.”

In addition, the commission opposed BPD’s association with UASI and the Urban Shield program.

Along with all other police agreements, the council approved the contracts with UASI and NCRIC.

Before the contentious discussion of police agreements, a public hearing was held to discuss the rezoning of 2112-2116 Channing Way from the zoning designation of “High Density Residential” to “Downtown.”

The rezoning would “facilitate the development of a project” on the site, according to the staff report. The building is currently derelict. The proposed rezoning was not recommended by the planning commission.

In a letter written by property owner Reza Valiyee read by property manager Anthony Ybarra, Valiyee said, “I vow to work hard to see this city improve,” adding that his proposal “is practical (and) can help the city.”

Worthington expressed disapproval for the proposal at the meeting, saying he would not “reward” Valiyee, who has committed several construction violations in the past, with a “massively profitable” project.

Citing philosophical issues with individually zoning for a project, Councilmember Jesse Arreguin opposed the proposal but said that he hoped something positive would be done on the property.

Mayor Tom Bates, who said he has known Valiyee for 25 years, also did not support Valiyee’s proposal. The rezoning proposal failed.

At the meeting, the council also unanimously approved a resolution permitting the city to join Bay Area Motivate, a regional bike-share program. The program is tentatively scheduled to begin in summer 2016.

The council will hold a special session Jan. 12 to address items that were not discussed at Tuesday’s meeting. A report from the Police Review Commission on last year’s Black Lives Matter protests was moved to the general council meeting Jan. 26.

Contact Austin Weinstein at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @aweinstein5.

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  • Here in Emeryville, we’re having this discussion about the militarization of our police forces after the AR-15 assault rifle shooting of Yuvette Henderson. We held a community meeting attended by 80 people about it and the Chief of Police thought the best thing for her to do was to boycott the meeting. Realize this is after she said the primary job of the police department implementing ‘community policing’ is to listen to the community. Apparently our chief only wants to listen to those advocating for more police firepower. That’s community policing.
    I hope you guys in Berkeley have a more responsive police chief than we do. Good luck.