Opinion: Why Berkeley must withdraw from Urban Shield

The importance of Urban Shield in training police to respond to disasters is exaggerated. Berkeley should exit the program to rebuild good faith between police and people of color.

The question of whether to continue the Berkeley Police Department’s participation in Urban Shield, an annual training where police and other law enforcement spend four days playing out potential terrorist scenarios, is not an easy one, and reasonable people disagree. However, I believe many of my fellow council members agree that, on balance, participating in Urban Shield is not beneficial to our community. Mayor Jesse Arreguín has indicated his commitment to ultimately end our participation in Urban Shield.

Many have exaggerated the role Urban Shield plays in emergency response for disasters like earthquakes. In fact, we participate in many other trainings under the umbrella of the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) that focus on those types of scenarios. I strongly support our police using these trainings, and wish more resources within UASI were put towards these trainings. The opposite is happening.

Last year, for example, $4.9 million of the $5.9 million the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office received from the federal government for the UASI was spent on the single weekend of exercises that comprise Urban Shield. Zero dollars received by the Sheriff went to medical and public health, emergency planning and community preparedness. This fundamentally undermines one of the main arguments in favor of Urban Shield, namely that it is necessary for our officers to respond to disasters. I agree that our officers should be better trained to respond to natural disasters. That’s why I want alternatives to Urban Shield.

The fear that critics of Urban Shield are expressing is real and is rooted in a deep distrust of police, especially in their dealing with communities of color. The Berkeley Police Department would do well to listen to these concerns, work to build trust with residents and spend more time learning de-escalation techniques, the need for which was made clear by the altercation and arrests that followed the meeting. Evidence shows that the vast majority of SWAT deployments by agencies participating in Urban Shield have actually been used for search warrants and critical incidents instead of terrorism. To put it into perspective, approximately 50 U.S. residents were killed in acts of terrorism last year but 170 unarmed people, many of them people of color, were killed by U.S. police.

Continuing in Urban Shield, is the opposite of what we want as we work to rebuild good faith between police and communities of color that has been deeply eroded by years of racial profiling and the misguided War on Drugs. Participating in Urban Shield also undermines the good work the Berkeley Police Department has already done over the years. That is why, even though I supported the purchase of the armored van, I did not support using funds from UASI to pay for it. Doing so would risk the Urban Shield program using Berkeley Police Department equipment in ways that are unacceptable and unaccountable to our oversight.

Our cities continued participation in the Norther California Regional Intelligence Center, or NCRIC, also damages the relationship between police officers and the community. Included in NCRIC are Suspicious Activity Reports, which are shared between police departments from all over the country, from as far away as Maine and Florida. While our department may take great care to ensure that the reports we file are without racial or religious bias and collected under legal means, we can have no such assurance when we receive reports from other places. Departments have filed reports on political activists, including advocates for abolishing the death penalty.

We must quickly find alternative ways to train our police, including how we can use Department of Homeland Security/UASI funds to prepare for community disaster, de-escalation of mental health crises and containing white supremacists, who have already said they plan to return to our city. We know that another way is possible. Other police forces, including the Palo Alto, Watsonville, Santa Cruz, Sebastapol, Mountain View, San Rafael, Vallejo, Santa Rosa, Menlo Park, and Pacifica Police Departments and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office refrain from participating in Urban Shield.

Whatever program we settle on, we need to make sure that our emergency response is rooted in human rights, civil liberties, and community-based safety. In the era of Trump when it is so easy to hate and fear those we don’t agree with, we must do the very opposite and build community and trust. Our future as both a city and country depend on it.

Kate Harrison is the City Councilwoman for District 4.