The Office of the Director of Police Accountability in Berkeley, or ODPA, launched an animal-assisted intervention program to promote community relations and well-being. In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, the program will continue for the month of May, according to an ODPA press release.
For the past month, Hansel Alejandro Aguilar, director of Police Accountability, has brought his chocolate labrador and cocker spaniel mix Lucky to the ODPA office to help community members and staff with their mental health.
This program is based on similar law enforcement programs using therapy animals, but according to the press release this program, is the first of its kind in the field of police accountability.
“We know that there’s a lot of communities that are having negative experiences unfortunately with law enforcement,” Aguilar said. “Our agency was established to try to build that public trust in the law enforcement field. So this is our way to really step up and find ways to be creative and also recognize these different barriers.”
In order to support public trust in the Berkeley Police Department, or BPD, ODPA was created to oversee BPD and hear complaints from civilians against BDP officers.
Aguilar said he began this program to support people during community outreach during presentations and interviews, as well as for staff members in the office.
“In my practice and experience we have very difficult conversations, where people get emotional,” Aguilar said. “Having the benefit of a therapy animal present there is going to alleviate and just allow for more fluid conversations and begin to allow us to get the report from the community.”
Lucky will come to ODPA community presentations and Know Your Rights presentations to help any community members struggling with the subject matter.
Due to staff members’ “emotionally charged” work, Lucky also frequently visits the ODPA office to improve their mental well-being.
Aguilar said ODPA is currently working on finalizing an outreach plan including requesting city funding for a community outreach and public relations staff person and possibly more funding for the animal-assisted program. This is only the “pilot phase” of the program, and Aguilar said ODPA may later try to expand the program and add different types of animals.
“My goal here is to challenge our field … how do we provide more person-centered, trauma-informed investigations and services to the members of the public?” Aguilar said.