Berkeley police reforms provide potential long-term budget savings

Berkeley Police Station near Downtown Berkeley
Sam Albillo/File
With the item Berkeley City Council recently passed, the city will divert funds from the police department and aim to place noncriminal calls in the jurisdiction of other entities, made up of unarmed individuals such as mental health professionals and nurses.

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Following the Berkeley City Council’s decision early Wednesday to finalize a police budget cut of 12%, the city will seek to introduce community safety reform through the passed omnibus bill and create a Department of Transportation responsible for traffic enforcement.

Under Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s omnibus bill, which combined five separate items proposed by City Council members, the City Council pledged to eventually cut the police budget by 50%. The omnibus bill passed with eight votes in favor and one abstention from Councilmember Cheryl Davila, who had proposed a 50% cut for the 2021 budget.

Two weeks ago, the City Council voted to cut about $9 million, or 12%, from the original proposed 2021 police budget of $72,774,334.

While Arreguín and Councilmembers Rigel Robinson, Ben Bartlett and Lori Droste noted the “significant upfront costs” of establishing a Department of Transportation in their written item proposal, they also cited the possibility of long-term savings and reducing the practice of stopping vehicles for minor traffic violations.

“These stops have too often escalated into use of force or unnecessary arrests that disproportionately harm Black Americans,” the item proposal states.

Other budget provisions passed in the omnibus bill include the Safety for All: George Floyd Community Safety Act, which will fund a data-driven study that includes analysis of police calls and responses, as well as allocate $100,000 to form a Specialized Care Unit.

According to the omnibus bill, the Specialized Care Unit will serve as a pilot program and hire trained crisis-response workers — likely a combination of unarmed mental health professionals, emergency medical technicians and nurses — to respond to 911 calls classified as noncriminal by the operator.

“One reason we call the police in cases where maybe they’re not the best people to do things is because they work 24/7,” said Councilmember Kate Harrison, adding that the similar Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets program in Eugene, Oregon, has been shown to be effective at providing crisis counseling, responding to substance misuse and offering other noncriminal emergency services.

According to Harrison, police officers cost more to hire because of better retirement benefits in recognition that their jobs can be dangerous.

Reducing the scope of police services in traffic enforcement and response to noncriminal calls not only benefits the city budget, but also “allows the police to focus more on the things that they do uniquely well, which is fighting crime,” Harrison said.

For Police Review Commission vice chair Nathan Mizell, however, the reforms in the omnibus bill represent only the beginning of the community engagement process.

“At some point, as we go on with a proper look into alternative forms of public safety, we’ll have to ask ourselves, ‘Is this the best way, as a city, for us to be spending our money?’ ” Mizell said.

In a written statement, Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Officer Byron White acknowledged the council’s push for different approaches in responding to calls regarding mental health crises, homelessness and traffic enforcement. White said it is too early to determine exactly how police services or personnel will be affected.

Contact Jessica Li at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @JessicaLi57.