Berkeley’s Police Review Commission recommended Wednesday that Berkeley Police Department continue to participate in Urban Shield amid community concerns about the program’s alleged culture of militarization and racial profiling, and concluded discussions of its report on BPD action during the December protests.
Urban Shield is a Bay Area training and assessment program sponsored by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security initiative and is designed to improve coordination among departments in emergency response situations. At the meeting, a group of four Berkeley police officers and one county emergency supervisor said the program gives them extremely realistic training scenarios that would otherwise be difficult for a local department to replicate.
“Urban Shield has, without a doubt, made me not only a better officer but a better supervisor,” said BPD Sgt. Melanie Turner at the meeting.
Lt. Andrew Rateaver, who has participated in the program since 2007, cited the June balcony collapse and a 2014 incident in which he and other BPD officers rescued two men from a fire on the I-80 overpass as examples of BPD using skills learned from Urban Shield.
Rateaver noted that BPD’s training through the program does not include any weapons that BPD does not already use on a regular basis and that officers use techniques learned from Urban Shield only when sanctioned by BPD policies.
But community members expressed concern about what they saw as an overly militaristic approach used in the program, particularly during counter-terrorism exercises.
“When you transfer (this mindset) into a nonterroristic situation, which is almost all the situations which Berkeley police confronts, it lends itself to an abuse of people, especially (against) people of color,” said John Lindsay-Poland, a wage peace coordinator at a local office of the advocacy organization American Friends Service Committee.
Community members also raised concerns about the culture fostered by the program, specifically regarding a T-shirt that said “Black Rifles Matter” allegedly sold at a vendors’ show associated with Urban Shield.
Commissioner Ben Bartlett later moved for the PRC to recommend that BPD take a year off from the program in order to allay concerns of hyper-militarization and explain the benefits of the Urban Shield to the community.
“When society is militarized, there are a lot of risks of side effects and collateral damage,” said Commissioner George Lippman, who voted for Bartlett’s motion. “Militarization has an extremely negative effect on people of color and also on women and on young people.”
The commission voted, 5-4, against Bartlett’s motion and instead moved to recommend that BPD participate in Urban Shield and work with the PRC to reduce militarization and explain the benefits of the program to the community.
The PRC’s recommendation will be presented to Berkeley City Council on Nov. 17, and its report on BPD action during the December protests will go in front of the council Dec. 1.