Following the deaths of two unhoused men Sunday at Civic Center Park, the Berkeley Police Department announced a plan Tuesday to increase police presence in the park.
According to BPD spokesperson Officer Byron White, the deaths and an additional hospitalization were likely due to drug overdoses. BPD plans to send officers from the Community Services Bureau, which consists of four liaisons each assigned to one area of the city. Additionally, White added that BPD plans to send patrols from the Bike Force, which usually works in Downtown Berkeley.
“The department is sending people over there just to see what, if anything, we can provide to the public — just kind of reach out and talk to people,” White, who is part of the Community Services Bureau along with a crime analyst and two supervisors, said. “It’s not necessarily an enforcement matter. It’s really just to see what kind of assistance we can provide if people would like assistance.”
In the future, White noted that BPD hopes to increase the bicycle patrol to 12 officers per commercial district in the city, which was the case more than a decade ago. However, current staffing does not meet this demand. White added that BPD plans to foster community engagement through conversation and reaching out to the community.
Ian Cordova Morales, lead advocate and president of Where Do We Go? Berkeley, disagreed with BPD’s decision to increase police presence in the park. Morales said the change will lead to harassment and arrests of the unhoused people in the park.
Morales instead emphasized the harms of criminalizing drug use and encouraged prevention support, such as opening access to mental health care. Where Do We Go? Berkeley has not collaborated with BPD in the past, according to Morales.
“I’m at a loss for words that Berkeley didn’t get the message that the war on drugs is over,” Morales said. “We need to approach these situations using proven methods such as harm reduction. Throwing police at these issues is just making things worse.”
David Showalter, president of the Board of Directors for Berkeley Needle Exchange Emergency Distribution, said the organization believes increased criminalization and policing as a response to substance abuse can lead to stigmatization and cause fewer people to seek supportive services for their addictions.
Instead, Showalter suggested overdose prevention education, naloxone distribution, supervised drug consumption, harm reduction services and noncoercive treatment as possible solutions to drug-related crises.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been even more isolated and the drug supply has become more unpredictable,” Showalter said in an email. “Discussions and decisions about policies to prevent overdose deaths should be led by people who use drugs and others who are directly impacted by those policies.”
Contact Andie Liu, Claire Daly and Lianna Leung at [email protected].