Op-ed: Militarization of Berkeley police doesn’t help community safety

This is an open letter to Chris Stines, President of the Berkeley Police Association, in response to his op-ed, “It should be possible to give police the tools they need while preserving Berkeley’s values,” published on Aug. 31, 2015, by Berkeleyside.

Dear Officer Stines,

Please forgive the people of Berkeley for our lack of enthusiasm about Berkeley Police getting more “tools” with which to beat and “crowd control” us. Don’t take it personally. For many of us, the memories of BPD’s militarized response to the Black Lives Matter protests last December are still fresh in our minds. From the unconsequenced beatings and gassing that took place, it is hard to get excited about even greater fire power being entrusted to BPD.

In your opinion piece of 8/31/15, you strain logic past the breaking point with your “more is better than less” approach to equipping police. You seem to make a direct correlation between increased armaments and increased safety. It takes more than dogs, helicopters and tanks to keep a community safe. You need positive relations with the community.

We are a city with a unique history and culture. For many decades, the people of Berkeley have believed in and fought for alternatives to war and violence. Don’t be so disappointed at our lack of excitement about camouflage wearing, soldier-like cops searching house to house with dogs while a tank idles outside and helicopters hover overhead. You should expect that in this community.

As I read your piece, I wondered if you are asking us to prepare for this type of military-style response to each incident in Berkeley in which a gun is involved? That would be a big change for us, Officer Stines, and we have no reason to believe that it is more effective than a careful investigation and genuine crime prevention measures. To be honest, for all of that display of hardware and force, BPD was still not able to apprehend the suspect.

Actually, Officer Stines, I found much of your letter to be somewhat misleading. You know very well that helicopters are allowed for the purpose of finding missing persons and for use in search and rescue operations. They are even allowed for use in apprehending violent suspects. (Resolution No. 51.408 –N.S.) Police are also authorized to use dogs in some of these same situations.

Although the point of the original council action was to limit the use of attack dogs and helicopters in crowd control situations, it is also true that a CHP helicopter was omnipresent during the protests of December (the noise became quite irritating to many residents). The helicopter was reporting in to BPD and this is recorded on the dispatch records from that time. To blame the poor response of BPD to the December protests on a lack of helicopters and equipment is to yet again avoid a genuine and critical analysis of BPD’s management, strategies and deficiencies.

Increased community safety is supposed to be the point of having a police department. This requires having a partnership with the community and understanding its needs. For example, we live in a city where 35% of police calls involve people who are having some form of mental illness. It seems strange to me that our department allows the Special Response Team to train for a full day each month in practice for dramatic (and rare) scenarios, but can’t manage to train even 10% of their officers in how to deal with people in mental health crisis. What does this say about BPD’s priorities?

It demonstrates an unwillingness to train and focus our police department to meet the actual needs of the community. Rather, our department seems to be more interested in training for the hypothetical scenarios that are concocted by the Department of Homeland Security and the organizers of the Urban Shield competition.

You made mention of “precious response time”. Response time in getting a dog may be important, but what about responding to actual life and death situations? BPD would do well to examine why it took them 23 minutes to respond last December when Alvin Henry Jones Jr., a 63-year-old Berkeley resident, was having a heart attack. Due to a protest happening some blocks away, BPD did not get to the scene until 23 more minutes had passed. This is very “precious” time for a person in cardiac distress. Mr. Jones later died. I would love to see the results of your examination of the lost and “precious response time” that may have cost a man his life.

Frankly, I suggest that BPD be kept out of Urban Shield war games entirely and instead be encouraged to have a meet and greet with the real people they are supposed to be protecting and serving. We are a real place with real people who matter to us very much. The continued militarization of BPD is out of step with the values of this community and it is time for a new direction for BPD.

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related, local authors are preferred, and we don’t publish anonymous pieces. Email submissions, as Word documents or embedded in the email, to editors@berkeleyside.com. The recommended length is 500-800 words. Please include your name and a one-line bio that includes full, relevant disclosures. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

Andrea Prichett is a founding member of Berkeley Copwatch and a 30-year resident of Berkeley.