Opinion: BPD and Urban Shield — not a clear-cut decision

Participation in a program that ensures the highest level of training is acquired by our first responders is a no-brainer, but there are some parts to skip.

The Berkeley City Council is posed to discuss the continued participation of the Berkeley Police Department in the UASI/Urban Shield Exercise on Tuesday April 25.

Opponents would have you believe that there are no benefits, or, if there are any, they are surely minimal compared to how it will influence the police department, how it is contrary to “the Berkeley belief system” and that, under the current administration, the program is not welcome.

UASI and Urban Shield were fully funded during both Obama administrations and a benefit to participants. The 2013 Boston Marathon first responders were in line to train with Urban Shield before the terrorist attack. The lessons they learned have been translated into core Urban Shield common practices and response training.

I believe that participation in a program that ensures the highest level of training is acquired by our first responders is a no-brainer. With past training focusing on an active school shooter, bomb scares, hostage negotiation and rescue tactics and yes, terrorist attacks, the training is not simply about real-life case scenarios, but about large-scale threats to urban communities.

We have an extensive BART system with 129 million rides annually that could easily be a target. Critical events against mass-transit systems were seen in the 2005 London and 1995 Paris Metro bombings. Mutual Aid responsiveness and cross-agency seamless integration is of critical importance and one of the primary aspects in the training that Urban Shield provides.

I do however have deep concerns in allowing the Berkeley Police Department to participate in the expo portion of the exercise. The presence of past vendors like International Armored Group, Netgear and Pro Force Law Enforcement outweigh the practical products of vendors like SWAT-T, Polimaster or QuiClot.

Every year, there are civilian observers included in the exercise. I have heard testimony on the efficiency and benefit of the training, but also concerns centered on the atmosphere, attitude and over-the-top messaging some of the vendors convey. During the Black Lives Matter demonstrations some vendors sold T-shirts with the same caption but with images of guns.

There is valid concern about an “us against them” messaging and the perceived over-militarization aspect that can pervade Urban Shield.

However, the Council would be wise to consider the benefit of participating in the exercise. Simply put, participation would allow our police officers, firefighters and all first responders to review best practices, benefit from inter-agency cooperation and build community safety-enhancing skills.

City Council should ask for the training modules once they are shared with the Berkeley Police Department. Doing so can help ensure that Council has the opportunity to assign civilian observers and is comfortable with the content. As stated above, I recommend that Council also require that BPD skip the vendor aspect of the program. The benefits of attending can be preserved and the negatives of the vendor fair can be diminished.

Evaluating the merits of participation with first-hand review, transparency and accountability and not from an unfounded worst-case scenario mentality, is the right course of action. It would be harder to explain in the unfortunate occurrence of a critical event that we had the possibility to be ready and passed on the opportunity.

George Perezvelez is a long-time resident of Berkeley, the longest (current) serving Commissioner at the Berkeley Police Review Commission and past Chair and Vice Chair of the BPRC; an institutional member of NACOLE ( National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement); and a founding member of the BART Police Citizen Review Board and its first Chair.