Tensions flare over Berkeley police’s chaplain program at review commission

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Priya Sundaresan/Staff

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The separation of church and state in Berkeley was called into question Wednesday night when the Police Review Commission, or PRC, debated the BPD chaplain program.

Currently, the program has only one chaplain — a rabbi — who is a volunteer. On Wednesday night, Commissioner Andrea Prichett initiated a motion to reject or condemn the chaplain program, but no other commissioner seconded the motion, which thus went without a vote.

Police Chief Andrew Greenwood, who was also at the meeting, said that since the program began, he’s received only positive feedback.

“My desire for this general order has come from my desire to give support,” Greenwood said at the meeting.I, as chief, was ultimately convinced. … as a visible piece of our department supporting our people — and our community — the rewards outweighed the risks.”

Prichett put the item on Wednesday night’s agenda in order for PRC to discuss concerns about the separation of church and state. She also raised the issue of police resources, since a BPD officer would be required to manage the program.

“There are pressures that come with being an officer. If officers are not able to access psychological services, then that’s something we can talk about. I don’t understand why the religion aspect has to be a part of it,” Prichett said at the meeting.

Several members of the public also voiced their concerns about compromising the separation between church and state. Prior to the meeting, Berkeley resident Kelly Hammargren sent PRC an email asking the commission to “table/withdraw consideration of the Police Chaplain Program permanently” because it violated the First Amendment. Hammargren also brought this point up during public comment at the meeting. Another community member suggested that the police force coordinate with the fire department, which has a long-standing chaplain program.

Other members of the commission, however, were in support of the program. Commissioner Michael Sherman expressed confusion about why this matter was even brought before the commission. He emphasized that the chaplain program served as support for officers, and the chaplain is not involved with policymaking in any capacity.

“In terms of church and state, I don’t think that this is an issue in this case,” Sherman said at the meeting. “They’re helping people in a crisis.”

PRC also discussed BPD’s current staffing shortage. Though there are currently 160 police officers on staff, five officers will be leaving shortly, including two who are retiring.

Greenwood said the shortage has caused BPD to suspend its bike unit and to move officers from the investigations unit to the staff patrols. Greenwood said BPD has ongoing outreach at this time, including at universities and community colleges.

“It really affects our ability to provide the variety of services that our community supports and expects us to; our baseline is patrol and investigations,” Greenwood said.

Contact Alexandra Stassinopoulos at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AE_Stass.