The Berkeley City Council is considering authorizing the Berkeley Police Department’s request to hire 25 additional police officers and add 7 dispatch positions due to understaffing concerns, according to a special city council meeting held Oct. 19.
In 2020, according to BPD Captain of Operations Michael Durbin, BPD employed 170 officers. This year, the council authorized BPD to have 157 officers, he said at the meeting, but it currently has only 149 active officers due to vacancies.
“As our numbers get lower, that means that we have to start pulling resources from other parts of the department,” said BPD spokesperson Officer Byron White.
According to White, understaffing could mean that BPD would have to divert resources from the detective bureau or traffic unit in order to maintain baseline services such as emergency calls and patrols.
White added that understaffing also affects BPD’s ability to expand training for officers since it is harder for them to take the necessary time off.
“It’s a big concern for us,” White said. “When you start thinking in terms of 21st-century policing, building trust and legitimacy, policies, technology and social media, community-engaged policing, training and wellness … not having enough staff undermines all of those pillars.”
Maria Yates, a volunteer with Berkeley Copwatch, however, said the potential hiring of more police officers would be a continuation of an “outdated” mentality that fails to take into account alternative approaches to public safety.
Yates cited data from BPD’s annual crime report, which was presented during the Oct. 19 City Council meeting, showing that violent and property crimes have decreased over the past year.
“Accompanying (Berkeley’s) housing crisis is an increase of people struggling with mental illness on our streets,” Yates said. “And so, while crime is down, these other serious issues are up. To say that more police officers can in any way begin to address the actual issues we have on the street is, I believe, a direct criminalization of the poor, the unhoused and the mentally ill.”
ASUC Senator Kalliope Zervas alleged that hiring additional police officers without “demilitarizing” the force would represent a lack of concern for the marginalized communities BPD has “statistically abused.”
Rather than expanding the police force, Zervas said she believes the city should hire “trained mental health professionals” to improve public safety.
Berkeley District 2 Councilmember Terry Taplin said in an email that the city’s police department does not have the proper number of staff necessary to meet the standards of national emergency dispatch guidelines, let alone expand successful community policing programs such as the Bike Force in Downtown Berkeley.
Taplin said in the email that his district, which spans from University Avenue to Berkeley’s south border in West Berkeley, is “heavily impacted by gunfire and traffic violence.” Since 2018, his constituents have consistently supported BPD and pushed to increase staffing levels, he noted.
“Too often only the loudest voices and those with the most time to spend are the only ones heard,” Taplin said in the email. “Unfortunately, this often leads to more affluent white communities claiming to represent and speak on behalf of working class communities of color, like the West Berkeley neighborhood that I grew up in and now represent.”