Opinion: Berkeley Police Association PR campaign distorts evidence

Concerned about low staffing, the BPA wants money to attract more recruits. But with the crime rate low, Berkeley would be safer if it redirected resources to social programs.

In a public relations offensive designed to extract more favorable contract terms from the city of Berkeley in its current negotiations, the Berkeley Police Association is on a campaign that distorts evidence and misleads the public.

The BPA is Berkeley’s police union. In aggressive media relations and the web site “Where’s My Berkeley Cop?” the BPA asserts that the police force is at an all-time low level and that Berkeley is losing officers to other cities.

It is true that Berkeley Police Department’s 160 officers reported by Chief Greenwood in December is less than the average of 166 that the department has had in the last four years, and short of the 176 that are budgeted. And as the BPA says, it is considerably less than 1999, when the department had 193 officers. (That number does not include the more than 50 UC Berkeley police officers, who patrol and carry out enforcement on the campus and the downtown area.)

What the campaign is silent about is that the crime rate in Berkeley is dramatically lower than when the police force was larger. Rates of violent crime and property crime in Berkeley were 56% and 55% higher, respectively in 1999 than in 2016 (both violent and property crime were more than twice as high every year from 1985 through 1996), even when we account for the increase in population, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Despite an uptick in violent crimes in 2016 and early 2017, Berkeley in 2014-2016 experienced lower rates of both property and violent crime than during any previous three-year period for at least three decades.

The BPD wants to portray the Berkeley City Council as unsupportive or hostile to policing. Some City Council members have raised concerns about accountability and militarization, which is different from not supporting or expressing hostility. Meanwhile, the majority on the City Council has voted in favor of unpopular measures the police lobbied for, including the use of large-canister pepper spray, “emergency” controls on protests, and the extension of BPD participation in the militarized SWAT exercises known as Urban Shield.

The vast majority of Berkeley police officers don’t live in town – only 5.4%, the second lowest percentage of 17 Bay Area cities surveyed by KQED in 2015. Instead of trying to recruit and retain officers who live as far away as Sacramento and Stockton, the BPD should first address why people in Berkeley don’t want to join them.

It’s not the salaries that police receive. The average pay for BPD officers in 2016 – even including recruits and 31 part-time officers – was $125,000, according to Transparent California. That doesn’t include benefits, which raises the average package to nearly two hundred grand: $198,316 (again, including recruits and part-time officers). BPD salaries are on par with the average in Alameda County, below those for Fremont, Emeryville, and Hayward, but above those of Pleasanton, Oakland and Piedmont.

But compare police compensation in Berkeley to the average salary in Berkeley of $59,767, or of a Berkeley high school teacher: $69,403. Twenty of the 25 highest paid Berkeley City employees in 2016 – with total regular and overtime pay and benefits between $291,000 and $359,000 each – were cops.

It’s also not the budget, as the BPA would have you believe. The department’s budget has nearly doubled since 2002, growing by 94%, substantially more than the rest of the city budget (which increased 78% in the same period). The Library budget, in contrast, increased by only 51%.

Given BPD’s increased funding, you have to wonder why BPA pins decisions about specialized units on the City Council, rather than on the department’s own management. In any case, hiring more officers often does not translate into more safety or less crime. More than 70% of police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors surveyed in 2002 agreed that providing more educational and after-school programs would contribute the most to reducing youth crime and violence; less than 15% believed hiring more police would have more impact. In many communities with falling violent and property crime rates, police dedicate themselves to more drug arrests.

Yet BPA calls for offering substantial bonuses for new officers and establishing dubious units such as a DARE task force and full-time police in schools. Instead of more police to work with Berkeley’s youth, the city should support programs for training and housing for young people.

BPD also lobbies hard for participating in the militarized Urban Shield SWAT exercise, instead of effective strategies against crime, leading to some poor decisions by officers. Urban Shield trainees planned and led the BPD operation that beat on participants in a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, which cost Berkeley $125,000 plus attorney’s fees. After reportedly panicked BPD officers – including two officers who have participated in Urban – inflicted excruciating pain on participants in a nonviolent protest against Urban Shield itself last June, a new civil rights claim was filed. The BPD’s campaign for Urban Shield doesn’t reflect well on its training priorities.

People say that cops have a tough job, and they do. So do many others in the public sector. But that statement doesn’t help us evaluate how many cops Berkeley should have, much less what they should be doing. Instead, the city should take advantage of relatively reduced crime rates and redirect resources from policing to social programs in Berkeley.

John Lindsay-Poland works for the Healing Justice Program of the American Friends Service Committee.