One week after a police operation in southwest Berkeley sparked community questions about whether military tools and tactics have been unnecessarily adopted by local departments, the Berkeley Police chief and one of his captains said safety was the overriding concern that drove decision making last Monday.
Threats to officer safety are very real. Police Chief Michael Meehan and Acting Capt. Jennifer Louis answered questions from Berkeleyside on Monday, Aug. 3, less than 24 hours after an officer-involving shooting in Oakland left a local man dead and a police sergeant in serious condition. According to a statement released by the Oakland Police, the man opened fire on officers with an assault rifle after they responded to his home during a sexual assault investigation. And, less than two weeks ago, Hayward Police Sgt. Scott Lunger was fatally shot without warning during a traffic stop.
Meehan said today, however, that it was the specifics of last week’s robbery and assault at a laundromat — “the facts of the individual case…. and the nature of the threat” — that prompted the use July 27 of a police dog from Oakland, an armored vehicle from Alameda and the Berkeley Police Special Response Team, which wears camouflage uniforms when it responds to calls.
Those decisions incited an emotional response from some in the Berkeley community and beyond who said the tactics are evidence of the increasing militarization of local police departments. Many said they were put off by the camouflage uniforms and armored vehicle, in particular. In the Berkeleyside comments, one person called the operation a sign of a “police state” and another decried the “unprecedented show of military force.” Others said police had made the right decisions, acting professionally and efficiently. But even some who made a point to say they support certain police tactics had questions.
“I support the police trying to apprehend an armed suspect of course!” wrote Micky Duxbury in the Berkeleyside comments. “However, the level of militarization with the camouflage outfits and a tank was completely unnecessary. You do not need to have war outfits on to look for suspect. I am outraged that the city of Berkeley is doing the same thing that many other cities in the country has [sic] done when they get offers of war related merchandise to use in domestic operations.”
Councilman Jesse Arreguín posed a number of questions to the chief last week as well, as homes in his district, he said, were impacted by the police operation. Arreguín said he had received “numerous reports from constituents expressing concern over the nature and scale of the police response,” adding, “this incident raises questions of whether the response was proportional to the crime, particularly considering the resources expended and the impacts on the surrounding community.”
The chief released a statement Friday evening to respond to some of the questions about the July 27 call that drew police to the laundromat, and Meehan and Louis attempted to address other questions Monday morning during an interview with Berkeleyside.
Last Monday at about 8:30 a.m., Berkeley police dispatchers received a 911 call about an armed robbery that had just taken place at a laundromat, the Wash & Shop, at 2450 Sacramento St. A man in his 20s entered the business with a revolver, closing the door behind him and locking it, police said.
He brandished the gun at the business owner, a 60-year-old woman, and showed her that it was loaded with five bullets. He demanded cash, then threw the woman on the floor, “giving her visible injuries,” according to police.
Witnesses told police they then saw the man run into the residential neighborhood near the 2400 block of Edwards Street. There were multiple reports that the man had climbed onto a roof. “Within moments of the last witness sighting,” police officers had set up a perimeter that blocked off Sacramento west to Edwards, and Dwight Way north to Channing Way.
Police put out alerts and announcements during the incident warning local residents to stay inside their homes. Some residents who tried to return home were told they could not cross the police perimeter during the search.
According to the police statement released Friday evening, there were 10 officers on patrol when the robbery call came in. Nine of them were dispatched to set up the perimeter, leaving just one officer to handle any other calls that might come in.
As it turned out, the department’s Special Response Team was in Richmond doing its regular monthly training, and police decided to call in that team to handle the block search for the robber. The team, which was formed in 1976, responds to “high threat and risk incidents outside the normal scope of BPD Police patrol responsibilities.”
Capt. Louis, who is on the Special Response Team and is also the acting operations division captain for the department, said she requested that the team be deployed to the robbery scene, and alerted the chief.
According to the department statement, there are hundreds of robberies each year in Berkeley. The department has “a strong response” to those incidents, particularly when robbers are armed with guns because “Those who commit these crimes pose a particular danger and risk of committing similar crimes in the future.”
Police generally respond to those incidents with patrol officers but, last week, according to the statement, “the circumstances and threat posed to residents and officers by a particular robbery elevated our response and tactics.… When the normal police response is inadequate for the safety of the community, the suspect and officers, we consider using the Special Response Team (SRT).”
The team that responded included 14 officers, including one focused on logistics, and two negotiators. When the team arrived, it relieved several of the patrol officers so they could handle other calls in the city. The team’s tan-colored camouflage uniform, explained Louis, was selected after research identified it as the one that is the safest to use in urban environments. In the past, the team wore a black uniform.
“Nothing occurs in solid blocks like that,” she said, adding that the camouflage the team now uses has been shown to render officers the least visible to potential assailants. Though it’s not used universally across the country, Louis said it is very widely used, and that Berkeley was among the first to adopt it. “That is the current best practice uniform.… We’re trying to do something that keeps the officers as safe as possible.”
Meehan said he knows “people are sensitive to that imagery,” but that following best practices to keep his employees safe is an even more pressing concern. He also defended the uniform in response to questions from the Police Review Commission last week.
“There are a limited number of ways to stop bullets. The human body is not one of them,” he told the PRC. “There’s almost no way to protect yourself from someone firing from a roof down toward you…. It’s not unreasonable to go out there with as much protection as we have. Nobody wants to get killed.”
The team also called for an armored vehicle from the Alameda Police Department and a search dog from the Oakland Police. The Berkeley Police Department does not have either a canine or armored vehicle, in line with Berkeley City Council policy.
Louis said it’s common for the SRT to ask for an armored vehicle when a suspect is armed, particularly from an elevated position. The team also uses it if there’s the possibility of an ambush, or if the rescue or evacuation of community members might be required.
Meehan said city manager approval is not required to deploy the SRT or to call for an armored vehicle. The police department is aware of concerns raised in the past about the use of an armored vehicle that looks militaristic, said Meehan. In 2012, he recalled, the department had received a grant that would have allowed it to have its own armored vehicle, but council told the city to pass.
“Council directed us not to accept the grant,” Meehan said. “They didn’t direct us not to ever use one. That said, we recognize it is a sensitive issue.”
(Councilman Arreguín, in his letter to the chief, took issue with that interpretation, describing even the borrowing of certain types of armored vehicle as “contrary to the express wishes of the Council.”)
Last year, the department pursued a grant that would have allowed it to obtain a white armored van to improve safety during police operations. That proposal met with unanimous council approval, Meehan said. Unfortunately, he added, BPD did not get that grant, but plans to put in for it again this year.
The police canine is another matter. Under council policy, borrowing a canine from another department must be approved by the police chief as well as the city manager, which is what took place last week, he said.
During the search, the East Bay Regional Parks District offered the use of its helicopter, but Meehan said his officers declined to use it because a council policy from the 1980s does not allow police to use helicopters “to search for violent suspects,” he said, adding, “It would have been very helpful to look for somebody on the roof. But we didn’t use it.”
Had the department wanted to use a helicopter for a circumstance allowed by council, that too would require approval by the city manager, Meehan said.
Some of the factors that led to the use of the SRT, according to the Friday statement, included the fact that the robber was armed with a gun, had been violent with the woman in the laundromat, and had reportedly climbed up onto a rooftop, where his vantage point could leave officers and community members at greater risk.
“Entering unknown areas for an armed suspect poses the threat of ambush,” according to the police statement. “The area the suspect fled to is a mixed residential and commercial block with proximity to multiple victims and potential risk to him, passing motorists and officers detaining him required a heightened tactical approach.”
The chief said the fact that the team was already on duty may have helped them get to the scene faster, but he said he could not say whether it influenced the decision to call in the team in the first place for the block search. Meehan said he looks at the “totality of circumstances,” including how long the operation might tie up resources, when deciding whether the SRT might be the best approach.
Meehan added that, had something gone wrong during the operation — without the participation of the SRT — and then people found out the team had been on duty but not deployed, that could have induced its own set of questions.
“We could be criticized whatever we end up doing on a scene like this,” he said.
Police said they also had multiple, independent witnesses providing credible information about the location of the robber — who was said to still be in the block — which was a significant determining factor in the establishment of the perimeter and the block search that followed. That’s not always the case and, when little information is provided about a suspect’s location after a crime, police are limited as far as leads to pursue, at least initially.
In hindsight, Meehan said the robber likely was able to slip out of the block prior to the establishment of the perimeter.
“We didn’t know that at the time,” Meehan said. “It’s possible that we missed him. It’s more likely that he was able to escape” before the perimeter was set up. Police are still actively working the case.
In response to questions about what some believe is the increasing militarization of local police forces, Meehan said the tools used last week have “been around for a long time.” He also noted that safety has become an increasingly important concern in many areas of society, from policing and firefighting to football and auto racing.
“Equipment has become more advanced,” he said. “We are looking for ways to keep people safe, that’s all we’re trying to to do. Due to the limited and specific function that we perform in society — nobody else has to put themselves in front of gunfire. And we are looking for ways to keep people safe wherever we can.”
Robber with ‘silver teeth’ evades Berkeley police (07.27.15)
Council on street paving, gas pump labels, cellphone warnings, Measure D panel, more (11.18.14)
University, Berkeley, Albany reject armored vehicle (07.05.12)
City council approves pools measure, debates streets (06.27.12)
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