Berkeley City Council must be held accountable for increasing police budget

CITY AFFAIRS: Berkeley City Council failed to enact change where it matters the most.

Illustration of piggy bank budgets
Jericho Tang/Staff

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In July 2020, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín publicly called to defund the police and reinvest in alternative public safety strategies. Now, the same city government that unanimously voted to paint “Black Lives Matter” on public streets has chosen to allocate one-third of all general funds to the Berkeley Police Department — nearly a $7.5 million increase from the 2021 budget.

The proposed budget lacks any concrete plan for“public safety reimagining” — financial allocations for these efforts remain “to be determined.” While this is the first time in four years the expenditures for health, housing and community services have exceeded the police budget, community programs for youth education, domestic violence prevention, homeless services and food security saw a 22% budget decrease.

Despite objections from the Berkeley community, the proposed budget is unlikely to be changed before it is finalized June 15. But exactly how BPD will use its $77.8 million allocation has yet to be fully determined. Not only did city leaders go back on their promise to slash BPD’s budget by 50%, but they also wrote a check to BPD with essentially no strings attached.

Local activists are calling for a Specialized Care Unit trained to respond to noncriminal police service calls, such as mental or physical health crises. Too many lives have been lost at the hands of police who have failed to de-escalate mental health emergencies — more than 1 in 5 people fatally shot by police in the United States suffer from a mental illness. Berkeley residents should be able to call for help without fearing the help itself. 

Calls to defund the police have been met with backlash at the state and national level. But when local elected officials blatantly disregard the voices of their community, it packs an extra punch. If the City Council was serious about decreasing crime rates, the money allocated toward BPD could have been redirected to fund community programs addressing youth, homelessness, mental health, food insecurity and domestic violence.

And while money continues to funnel into BPD, the City Council has offered no concrete strategy to address the racial disparities found in Berkeley police stops. A recent city audit found that Black people accounted for 34% of stops made by BPD despite constituting only 8% of the population. With BPD armed with a massive budget, we can expect the cycle of unwarranted stops to continue. 

After a year of performative activism and empty promises, the City Council must be held accountable for its actions. The council had an opportunity to decrease funding for unwarranted and discriminatory stops and ineffective public safety strategies. Instead, it opted to uphold the status quo and let another year pass without substantive changes to Berkeley’s policing. 

It’s something that Berkeley voters should keep in mind in 2022 and 2024 while voting for City Council.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the summer 2021 opinion editor, Sarah Siegel.

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