Berkeley’s convoluted bureaucracy hinders police reform efforts

Ameena Golding/Staff

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The Berkeley Police Department is on the fritz, and as students, we should be worried.

Last week, the city of Berkeley took a huge step back from severing its connection to Urban Shield, a set of controversial police training exercises and weapons expos. As District 4 City Councilmember Kate Harrison explained in her recent op-ed on the program, “Urban Shield (is) a set of war games, tactical exercises and weapons expos designed around a Bush-era counter-terrorism agenda.” Civil rights organizations, the ASUC, numerous student groups and Berkeley City Council members have criticized the program for contributing to police militarization and racial profiling.

Urban Shield has a multitude of flaws that cannot and should not be ignored. Its yearly training expos have been reported to host Oath Keepers, a far-right militia organization associated with white supremacists, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE. Furthermore, training exercises have reportedly used images of people of color as perpetrators, feeding into the racial bias epidemic already prevalent in BPD and police departments across the country.

Last year, the city of Berkeley released a report that demonstrated that BPD is nearly six times more likely to pull over a Black driver than a white driver, and six times more likely to use force. The killings of young Black people across the country have also increased tensions between Bay Area students and BPD as community members seek to proactively prevent further death. When events such as “Free Speech Week” occur, BPD is on and around campus interacting with our students — and students, especially students of color, do not feel safe in their own community.

Staying in Urban Shield hurts the city, the community and our students. It reinforces the deeply concerning and frankly unacceptable behavior we want our police officers to overcome.

Despite all the clear reasons to leave Urban Shield, an ambiguous legal gray area regarding the city charter has pulled reform to a halt. During a June 18 subcommittee meeting that could have been a key step in separating from the program, Councilmember Susan Wengraf revealed last minute to her colleagues that taking action would be illegal because police training may be under the jurisdiction of the city manager, not City Council. Mayor Jesse Arreguín then voted against withdrawing BPD from Urban Shield because he was concerned that voting in favor of withdrawal may be in violation of the city charter. This comes after months of his vocal support for withdrawal, surprising both community members and students.

Additionally, there is news that a number of police officers have also threatened to resign if the city pulls out of Urban Shield. The potential mass resignation of officers would also put the city in a pinch. These developments highlight that police oversight does not lie with this city’s Police Review Commission, nor the mayor, nor the city manager, nor the residents of Berkeley — but with the Berkeley Police Association, BPD’s lobbying organization. BPD officers are some of the highest wage-earners in the city, with the police chief making about four times what the mayor makes. Still, BPD cites staffing shortages and a lack of resources. Efforts to improve oversight over the department through the city’s Police Review Commission, which currently has virtually no power, have been hindered by police interests. Now, officers are threatening to resign in what seems to be another attempt to strong-arm the elected officials of the city of Berkeley.

We need multifaceted, top-to-bottom reform, and we need it now.

We need to pull out of Urban Shield for the safety of Berkeley residents and students who are rightly uncomfortable with their police officers carrying military-style weapons.

We need to empower the Police Review Commission to reward positive behavior and punish prejudiced behavior in our police department.

We need to establish clear precedents of oversight over institutional reform for the police department that includes community input from longtime residents and students.

And the police officers threatening to leave to compel us to stay in a program that does not align with Berkeley’s values? Those are the officers we don’t need in our city.

Nuha Khalfay is a senior at UC Berkeley studying public health and the ASUC external affairs vice president.
Angie Chen is a junior at UC Berkeley studying political science and the local affairs director in the ASUC Office of the External Affairs Vice President.
Dominick Williams is a senior at UC Berkeley studying political science and the legislative affairs director in the ASUC Office of the External Affairs Vice President