Berkeley Police Department struggles with understaffing in line with national trend

Simran Sarin/Staff

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Berkeley Police Department is one of many police agencies across the country facing understaffing because of budgeting constraints and a lack of qualified applicants.

According to BPD spokesperson Sgt. Andrew Frankel, BPD currently has 163 officers sworn in, while the city has authorized BPD to have 181 officers on staff. The amount of officers the city authorizes BPD to hire is determined by the agency’s history and budget.

Frankel said the city manager approves BPD to overhire officers, increasing the number of allocated officers from 176 to 181 as a precautionary measure to ensure it has a cushion in case it loses several officers in a short period of time to unforeseen circumstances, such as switching police agencies. Frankel added that 181 officers is an almost unattainable number for the department, which BPD has only gotten close a handful of times in the past several years.

At 1.43, BPD had the fourth highest ratio in 2016 of sworn officers per 1,000 residents among 21 cities with a population size between 110,000 and 150,000, according to the 2016 Police Employee Data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Nationwide, the ratio of sworn officers per 1,000 residents was 2.4 in 2016, as reported by the Sacramento Bee.

As previously reported by the Sacramento Bee, Sacramento Police Department is also facing understaffing on a larger scale, with about 100 sworn officer vacancies.

The 2016 FBI data listed the number of sworn officers in Berkeley as 175, but it has since dropped to 163, according to Frankel.

Frankel said staffing isn’t just based on population size. According to Frankel, population, population density, the size of a city and response times all contribute to staffing.

Across the policing industry, departments are seeing the lowest number of qualified applicants in more than 20 years, according to Frankel. This, Frankel added, along with an unusually large number of officers moving to other agencies in the past two years, has led to many of BPD’s staffing issues.

Frankel said understaffing can cause many problems across the department and community, such as decrease in services, lower morale, forced overtime, decrease in individualized services and lower job satisfaction, which can all lead to officers leaving for other less impacted agencies.

In the past, BPD has had some issues with staff morale. Former police chief Michael Meehan faced criticism from many of his officers on a variety of issues, one of which was Meehan’s inability to expand BPD’s staff.

According to Police Review Commission Chair George Lippman, the Police Review Commission, or PRC, has not addressed or evaluated issues of understaffing. Lippman said that during his time on PRC, he has not noticed operations being affected by understaffing. He added, however, that PRC does not always have the best vantage point when overseeing BPD’s internal affairs.

“We don’t have necessarily complete transparency and insight into what is going on in the department,” Lippman said.

UCPD spokesperson Sgt. Sabrina Reich said in an email that UCPD is also dealing with staffing challenges, alongside many Bay Area agencies. Reich cited causes behind understaffing such as retirements, lack of qualified applicants, the increasing cost of providing employee benefits and a limited budget.

“We recently started hiring again and have brought on four new officers in the last six months. This brings our staffing up to 58 officers and we’re still hiring,” Reich said in her email. “When I started at UCPD nearly 14 years ago, we had 75 officers to give you an idea of the impact statewide budget cuts have had on our department.”

To combat these problems, Reich said in her email that UCPD, along with many departments facing the same issues, is figuring out ways to “do more with less” in an effort to maintain a high quality of service. Reich cited examples such as looking into online reporting options and hiring Community Service Officers, who assist with the Bear Walk safety escort program, safety checks of student housing units and traffic control at events, among other duties.

Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he has been working on several proposals to help alleviate some of the issues caused by understaffing in BPD.

“Every time I say we need to do prevention by having an officer biking the beat in the campus area, they say we don’t have enough staff people to do it,” Worthington said.

Worthington’s proposals include using non-sworn-in officers to take on responsibilities that aren’t necessary for an official officer to do, such as paperwork or mental health-related 911 calls.

Worthington said he believes a high percentage of 911 calls are related to mental health issues that don’t require the response of an armed officer.

“In my experience, a lot of mental health (911 calls) could be better addressed by social workers,” Worthington said.

Worthington added that BPD’s hiring process needs to be continuous and focused on utilizing social media and other resources to reach a more diverse applicant pool.

Berkeley City Council will discuss these proposals in November, after addressing other policing issues, such as reforming the role of PRC, according to Worthington.

To address understaffing concerns, Frankel said BPD is advertising more in law enforcement-specific publications and recruiting at job fairs across the state, among other efforts.

“Some agencies might look at this and think, ‘We need to reevaluate standards,’ (but) that is not something the BPD is interested in doing,” Frankel said. “We would rather be a little understaffed than hire the wrong folks.”

Kate Tinney is the lead crime and courts reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @K_Tinney.