Berkeley police look to hire more officers in face of understaffing

Cesar Ruiz/Staff

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Berkeley Police Department announced that it is looking to hire more police officers in a press release Thursday —  an announcement that comes during a prolonged period of understaffing for the department.

BPD, which is authorized by the city to have 181 officers on its staff, had only 163 officers sworn in in October. In the months since, BPD has hired five new officers, while six officers have retired or left the department, for a total of 162 officers, according to BPD spokesperson Sgt. Andrew Frankel.

The low number of officers continues to hamper BPD’s ability to operate up to its full potential, according to Frankel. Frankel added that understaffing does not affect the speed with which police respond to crises, but that following up on these events takes longer than it used to because BPD has fewer detectives.

Understaffing affects BPD’s ability to solve long-term issues, such as homeless encampments, Frankel said. The department’s Community Services Bureau, which works to solve such issues, currently only includes four officers and a sergeant, according to Frankel.

UCPD is experiencing similar staffing shortages, according to UCPD spokesperson Sgt. Sabrina Reich. Reich stated that because of statewide budget cuts, UCPD has had to leave positions unfilled.

In order to attract more officers, the city manager is in the process of implementing a hiring bonus — a one-time sum of money paid out to applicants who meet BPD’s standards, according to Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington. Worthington referred to the bonus as “a little sweetener” to get people to start applying.

Worthington also said he has looked at audits showing that some policing work that BPD currently performs “doesn’t need to be done by anybody with a gun.”

Worthington pointed to calls BPD receives related to homelessness and mental health issues, which he said could be handled by social workers instead of by police officers. Traffic enforcement could also be undertaken by civilians, according to Worthington.

“The police we have now are not trained or adequately prepared to deal with everything from mental health (crises) to being a patrol officer stationed at a middle school,” said Peyton Provenzano of Berkeley Copwatch in an email. “We need funding for community based services to supplant the role of the police in areas where they have no business providing services.”

City Council is currently considering a proposal that would “civilianize” the job of responding to mental health crises, according to Worthington. The plan will be discussed by the council in February and could receive funding as early as June.

“(We are) very optimistic that we have potential solutions,”  Worthington said. “This conversation will now help motivate progress.”

Rachael Cornejo covers city government. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @RachaelCornejo.