Opinion: We owe it to our community and our neighbors to engage and transform Urban Shield

Urban Shield may be in need of a course correction, but that does not mean we should simply disengage from it.

On Tuesday, June 20, the Berkeley City Council considered whether to continue participation in Urban Shield. I voted, with the council majority, to continue participation for six months while examining Urban Shield and exploring alternative trainings.

Urban Shield, funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is a free, multi-day regional training exercise. Jurisdictions across the nation participate in it to prepare for both man-made and natural disasters. This year’s event includes a regionally coordinated shelter response in case of a massive earthquake. The city’s fire, emergency services, police, public health and civilian staff all participate in these trainings.

Opponents argue that Urban Shield militarizes law enforcement. Stop Urban Shield states on its website that “[Urban Shield] subjects emergency personnel to an orientation which suggests that every crisis could be a terrorist attack and must be handled with a military-like mindset and possible force.”

These concerns do have merit. Police departments nationwide are becoming increasingly militaristic. Law enforcement officers are being armed with equipment and tactics that may be better suited for battlefield scenarios. This national trend is alarming and must be addressed.

However, that does not diminish the fact that law enforcement officers need to be prepared to withstand catastrophic events.

Critics urge the City to participate in other trainings. But no other regionally coordinated free training currently exists.

Indeed, Urban Shield may be in need of a course correction. However, if we simply disengage, Urban Shield will continue on its current path.

As a practical matter, if our neighboring cities or counties participate in Urban Shield, we will surely be subjected to its tactics when we seek mutual aid during major events.

Urban Shield was born here in Alameda County. We owe it to the region and the nation, to fix what we started. In other words: Berkeley must lead.

As Berkeleyans, we have never backed away from wading into problematic areas to create change. This is why the Mayor has empowered my office to form a Blue Ribbon panel comprised of leaders from marginalized populations and experts in equitable policing. This panel will draft a series of recommendations for the Urban Shield subcommittee.

We need a new vision for emergency management; one that incorporates resiliency and ethical urban policing.

Let’s have the courage to engage and transform Urban Shield.

Ben Bartlett is the City Councilman representing District 3.