Keep calm and defund Berkeley police

Illustration of a protest against police funding
Mingxin Wang/Staff

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Are you sitting down? Because we need to talk. And I really need you to listen. It’s about the “b” word. Ready? Budget. There, I said it. The city of Berkeley is working on its annual budget and the largest proposed portion of the general fund is currently allocated to the city’s police.

This is not some dry, fiscal process, but a choice. Come June 29, your chance to act will be gone. So, which is it? Will Berkeley fund the police with 33% of our budget, leaving only 3% for community agencies? Or are we going to do something about it?

Following George Floyd’s murder and an upswell of demand from local residents last summer, Mayor Jesse Arreguín called for defunding the police. City Council passed an omnibus package to “reimagine” public safety in Berkeley, calling for the funding of youth programs, housing services, domestic violence prevention and more by reducing the police department’s budget. The city agreed to develop a Specialized Care Unit, or SCU, as an alternative response to mental health needs and noncriminal calls, as well as a nonpolice transportation department to handle traffic law enforcement.

Since then, however, things haven’t looked so good for the Berkeley Police Department. In January, a negotiator-trained officer, weapon in hand, was unable to talk down a man experiencing a mental health crisis. As a result, a BPD officer shot him in the face. Next, there was the city auditor’s April 22 report, which found that “BPD stopped Black people at a significantly higher rate than their representation in the population (34 percent compared to 8 percent), while BPD was most likely to search Black and Hispanic people following a stop.”

As shown by the Public Policy Institute of California in a comparison of the state’s major cities, violent crime has been on the decline in the past year. Furthermore, only 0.7% of BPD call types from 2015 to 2019 were classified as violent crime in the auditor’s April report. On the other hand, 12% of all calls from that same period were related to mental health, a number that is “likely significantly” undercounted. Moreover, calls related to traffic constituted the largest percentage at 27%.

Let me simplify this: If the City Council supported defunding BPD and reallocating resources toward community care (it did), and BPD has demonstrated an unchecked pattern of racial disparity documented back to 2012 (it has), and BPD has police officers, not trained therapists, who have been known to cause harm when responding to mental health-related calls (it does) and crime is down (it is), then now is the time to act and respond in the most “Berkeley” way possible: with groundbreaking, progressive reforms, based on data and utilizing the wealth of brainpower and compassion here in this amazing city.

But there’s been a plot twist: The proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 suggests increased funding for BPD. Yes, increased funding for overtime, encrypted scanners, officer wellness and, yes, a little bit for training out that racial “implicit bias.” In addition, funding for community agencies, or so-called “critical services,” was gutted by 22%. Until the city demands that BPD takes a serious look at its budget and makes cuts, then all this talk is ostensibly just a performative nod to transformation until people stop paying attention.

When it comes to developing the SCU, securing the funding from BPD is an obvious start. Programs such as the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS, model in Eugene, Oregon have laid valuable groundwork for what an innovative, noncarceral response system for crises can look like. CAHOOTS has plenty of data from its 31 years in operation, and according to its estimates, the program saves the city of Eugene about $8.5 million in public safety spending annually.

Wait. Rewind. Eugene has had an alternative to mental health response for 31 years. And it saves the city money. Let that sink in. The Berkeley community is begging for programs that the City Council has literally said it wants to fund. Yet instead of dollar amounts, the budget reads: “TBD.” Really. In the budget, next to a line item that reads “Public Safety Reimagining,” it says “TBD.” Given an entire year to “reimagine,” it seems that the best the city could come up with was, well, nothing.

Behold the budget process, in which fact and fantasy collide — and it all ends in less than a month. The referrals will be made by June 15, and on June 29, the final vote will be cast.

I refuse to accept that the proposed budget is all that Berkeley can offer. The City Council needs to hear from us today, tomorrow and every day until it creates a budget that meaningfully funds our community. This needs to get personal for each of us. It’s up to you and me, as human beings, to care about our youth, our elders, those who live with a mental illness, those who suffer from food and housing scarcity, those who have survived intimate partner violence and those who have survived police violence. Berkeley can do better.

Write a letter, make a phone call, log on to a City Council Zoom meeting Tuesday nights. Join me and others on the steps of City Hall on Milvia Street every Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m., demanding a better Berkeley until the final budget vote. Together, we can truly reimagine safety in the city of Berkeley.

Maria Yates is a volunteer for Berkeley Copwatch.