A team of Berkeley Police officers took first place at a recent Bay Area competition to gauge their preparedness in a 48-hour series of grueling emergency response drills, authorities said this week.
The fifth annual Bay Area Urban Shield event, which is organized by the Alameda County sheriff’s department, took place Oct. 25-28 in locations around the region.
The federally-funded program is managed by the National Incident Management System and the Standard Emergency Management System, according to organizers. The program was created to train first responders in how to handle disaster scenarios in the communities they serve. Police and fire first responders in many cities, such as San Francisco, Austin and Dallas, along with international teams from Brazil, Israel, France and other countries, have participated.
Sgt. Christian Stines, president of the Berkeley Police Association, said Berkeley’s team of participants this year bested 34 other SWAT and emergency responder teams from around the globe to score highest in this year’s contest.
The team was made up of eight officers, including negotiators and members of logistics and tactical teams, who are among a couple dozen members of Berkeley’s overall special response team. Officers volunteered to participate in the contest to represent the department.
The exercises are “designed to protect buildings and its inhabitants, in mass casualty incidents, in active shooter scenarios, like what occurred at Oikos University in Oakland, and in hostage rescue exercises,” Stines said.
Drills were modeled on events like the U.S. embassy attack in Benghazi, the Navy shipyard attack in September, the Boston Marathon bombing and the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown. Competitions were staged in locations throughout Northern California, including San Francisco, Redwood City, Livermore and Brentwood. Emergency responders worked together to address each incident, and teams were scored on their participation.
This year, two drills took place on the Bay Bridge. In one, terrorists had stolen a FedEx van and were using it to launch a chemical and biological assault on bystanders. Scenarios have also taken place inside the Caldecott Tunnel or at local airports.
“We get the chance to do things that we don’t normally do, or couldn’t normally do, in Berkeley,” said Stines. “All of those were just great experiences, to feel like we’re capable of handling those different situations.”
He said teamwork, practice and commitment throughout the year contributed to Berkeley’s success in the contest.
“Team leaders have put in a tremendous amount of personal time, whether that’s through going to conferences, ordering T-shirts for the group, or dropping off coffee at training events,” he said. “Everybody, from top to bottom, has really contributed a lot of personal time to ensure that we’re a top notch team.”
The Berkeley Police special response team has been around since 1976, and achieved international recognition for its handling of the Henry’s restaurant hostage incident in 1990.
Many of the groups that participate in Urban Shield are full-time SWAT members, said Stines. In Berkeley, it’s an ancillary duty, with officers training for SWAT-type exercises just twice a month. Despite that, the team’s focus on “modernizing and really looking toward the best tactics and best practices” gave Berkeley an edge.
Stines, who did not participate this year but has been involved in Urban Shield exercises in the past, described the competition as “brutal,” both physically and psychologically.
“To be awake for 48 hours, it’s just difficult,” he said. “You’re obstacle course running, and climbing over water, and climbing through tunnels in the dark. By the end of it you’re pretty much a zombie.”
There are no significant breaks throughout the competition, though participants undergo several brief medical checks for safety.
“You may get some rest driving from the Livermore scenario to the Redwood City scenario, but otherwise you’re on, pretty much constantly, for those 48 hours,” said Stines.
Participants also get a first-hand look at new technologies that might help in crime fighting, such as a tool that provides a 360-degree view of a room before first responders go inside.
And, though much of the equipment and training may well have been designed for military contexts, Stines said local forces always translate that into what would make sense in a civilian environment.
“We’re able to adapt the lessons that they’ve learned from armed conflicts and use those things to prevent problems in Berkeley,” he said.
Critics of the program say it promotes the increasing militarization of local police forces. At a recent Berkeley City Council meeting in October, members of local watchdog group Copwatch said the city should not participate in events like it.
“It is not about disaster preparedness. It’s a game,” Copwatch founder Andrea Prichett told council members, who were considering what type of law enforcement mutual aid agreements the city should approve. She said that, though events like Urban Shield tout anti-terrorism and disaster preparedness training, “it makes a joke of both activities.”
“This police department is getting away from us,” Prichett told the council.
Among roughly a dozen speakers who criticized the program or expressed concerns about the protection of civil liberties, one said events like Urban Shield help build the “framework for the police state,” and provide a dangerous precedent as far as what surveillance technologies are used in local communities.
Others said, instead of focusing on terrorism or disaster response, police end up using their tactical skills to target activists involved with anti-war or Occupy-type movements, quash constitutionally protected forms of protest and criminalize demonstrators.
Stines said he disagreed with that assessment.
“If you looked at, in the 70s, with the huge number of veterans coming home, there was a lot more military culture in our police department at that point,” he said. “Now, there’s quite the reverse of that. There are a whole lot of really educated cops, even if they are veterans, who have spent enough time in civilian culture to parse what’s good and appropriate in the community. We’re even better at being able to tell the difference now than we have been in the past.”
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