Op-ed: Not making all of us safer — police militarization in Berkeley

Next Tuesday, Berkeley City Council members will discuss the city’s involvement and participation in Urban Shield, a highly militarized annual SWAT competition and weapons expo. They will also consider a long-awaited report about the Berkeley police’s crackdown of a protest last December, in which people standing up against the murders of Black people at the hands of police were brutalized.

Police claim that Urban Shield provides them with better training and skills to be able to handle emergency situations. Yet the increasingly militarized response to protests and to people of color shows that Urban Shield doesn’t increase safety.

In October, the Berkeley Police Review Commission voted down, by a narrow 5-4 margin, a proposal by Commissioner Benjamin Bartlett to suspend Berkeley’s participation in Urban Shield exercises in 2016. Commissioners were disturbed by the program’s militarized approach, by T-shirts sold at the Urban Shield vendor expo saying “Black Rifles Matter”, and by the department’s pattern of racial profiling.

Urban Shield “is not happening in a vacuum,” observed Bartlett. “All over the country, every tier of government is tooling up. They are armed to the teeth.”

In response to the protest last December 6, Berkeley Police planned to “Get um’ running! Stretch the crowd out.” This plan and concept of operation was under the command of Lt. Andrew Rateaver, who has participated in every single Urban Shield exercise since 2007, and now commands the Berkeley SWAT team, called the SRT.

The result was even worse than the plan. Police beat journalists, clergy, bystanders, people giving aid to the injured, as well as those actively protesting impunity for the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. Many of those beaten by police filed suit last month for violations of their rights.

Berkeley police detective Scott Salas participated in Urban Shield in 2010 and 2011; on December 6, he hit 60-year-old Joseph Cuff, who was walking his dog and had his hands up, with a two-handed shove from his club, knocking Cuff to the ground, according to an affidavit filed in May.

Other commanders who planned the December 6 police action also received Urban Shield training. Lieutenant Alyson Hart was responsible for planning and intelligence, while Captain Erik Upson was the “incident commander”; Hart and Upson were trained in Urban Shield in 2010 and 2011. Both Rateaver and Upson are subjects of the lawsuit filed last month.

Lt. Rateaver told me that SRT members who participate in Urban Shield train other officers, to multiply its impact. So Urban Shield graduates presumably trained the other SRT members who served as squad leaders during the December protests.

In the end, either Urban Shield was ineffective in preventing the violence and repression the BPD demonstrated on December 6, or Urban Shield’s anti-terrorism lens and gunned-up approaches contributed to BPD’s violence.

The militarized tools in Urban Shield are going to a police department that has demonstrated a pattern of racial bias and profiling. The analysis of traffic stops by Berkeley PD from January to August of this year show that, though Black people constitute less than 8% of Berkeley’s population, they were 30.5% of those stopped by police. Moreover, White people stopped were more likely to be cited than Blacks or Latinos. In other words, when White civilians are stopped, it is far more often for a legitimate reason, while when police stop African Americans and Latinos, very often it is for no reason.

Commissioner Bartlett put the racial profiling in context, in response to Lt. Rateaver’s presentation about Urban Shield: “I hear from your presentation, ‘Safely Resolve,’ I hear ‘Peaceful.’ But the T-shirt says ‘No Peace.’ And the stops data says: ‘Target Blacks.’ As an African-American I feel it, but I got to tell you White people, we are the canary in the coal mine. If they do it to us, they will do it to you.”

The SWAT teams that participate in Urban Shield face a sequence of crisis scenarios, all of which must have a “nexus to terrorism” in order for the exercise to be funded by the Department of Homeland Security. These are team competitions, but teams are not rewarded for de-escalation of conflict. The lives of “bad guys” have no point value in these games. Jim Morrissey, a SWAT medic for the FBI in San Francisco, described to Berkeley’s Police Review Commission one scenario he designed:

“I wanted it to be a gang takeover, because that has happened in numerous places around the country. But of course they said no, it has to be terrorism. So, I’ll change it up a little bit, but the goal is still the same. There’s a threat inside the emergency department, with patients in there, physicians, and nurses and bad guys and good guys. So they were demoted if there was any injury to any other participants other than those who were carrying guns intent on causing more harm.” [italics added]

Notice here that SWAT teams are penalized if police are injured, but not if alleged gunmen are killed. This offers no incentive to negotiate with people who may have political intentions. It also highlights worst case scenarios in police imagination and preparation, despite the vastly different circumstances of most police interventions.

We invite readers to comment on Urban Shield and militarization to the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday.

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.

John Lindsay-Poland is the Wage Peace Coordinator of American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco.