The Berkeley City Council voted early Wednesday morning to continue Berkeley police and fire department participation in Urban Shield, provoking outrage and arrests at the end of a special meeting that lasted more than six hours.
The council voted 6-2-1 in favor of continuing to participate in the federally-funded regional training exercises for another year while a new subcommittee looks into alternatives. Councilwomen Cheryl Davila and Kate Harrison cast the votes in opposition and Councilman Kriss Worthington abstained. Mayor Jesse Arreguín had proposed a substitute motion that would have suspended Berkeley’s participation in Urban Shield for a year in addition to creating the subcommittee, but Councilwoman Susan Wengraf introduced an amendment to keep Berkeley police and firefighters in the program this fall.
Activists who said Urban Shield promotes the militarization of police and threatens communities of color had packed into the Longfellow Middle School auditorium, and swarmed the dais, chanting and unfurling a banner when the council cast its vote around 12:30 a.m.
Police officers arrested two people who climbed onto the stage. In a presentation earlier in the evening, the police chief and a sergeant, along with the fire chief and city spokesman, asked the council not to withdraw from Urban Shield, which they said provides important emergency response training.
As the officers led the detained activists off the stage, the crowd followed them outside, yelling, “Let them go!” Once outside, BPD left the scene fairly quickly, and the activists, most from a coalition called Stop Urban Shield, gathered in a circle and vowed to continue their resistance efforts.
Later on Wednesday, coalition organizers said police injured members of their group, and called the response a demonstration of the kind of policing they were there to protest.
The Urban Shield matter was just one of four votes regarding law enforcement relationships that took place at the meeting. The City Council also gave the police department its final blessing on the purchase of an armored van but resolved to create a policy governing the use of the van before it is deployed. That vote was 7-2, with Davila and Harrison voting against.
The council also voted 5-4 to continue BPD’s relationship with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), which shares criminal data among local, state and federal agencies. Councilwoman Sophie Hahn moved to continue the partnership for a year but also to establish a task force to study the kind of information distributed through it. Council members Wengraf, Lori Droste, Linda Maio and Worthington supported the motion, and Mayor Arreguín along with council members Ben Bartlett, Davila and Harrison voted against it.
Lastly, the council voted 8-1 to renew its participation in the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), an equipment and training grant program funded by the Department of Homeland Security. UASI also funds Urban Shield, though the council held a separate vote on the matter. Only Davila voted against the UASI renewal.
Although some speakers during the hours-long public comment period touched on the other topics, the vast majority of attendees were there to plead with officials to pull out of Urban Shield.
The program, created by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in 2007, provides tactical training, including a range of emergency and attack simulations. Each year, BPD sends eight officers from its Special Response Team, along with firefighters and some city personnel, to the 48-hour training. In their report and presentation to the council, BPD Chief Andrew Greenwood and officers emphasized that the department does not abandon its own policies when participating in the program. Responding to concerns that accepting federal funding could threaten local control, Greenwood said BPD would not do anything at odds with its values, particularly under the current federal administration.
“I’ll be the first to sound the alarm should some federal voice try to exert control over our department,” he said at the meeting.
The BPD representatives and BFD Chief Gil Dong said Urban Shield has prepared first responders in their departments to provide critical medical assistance during emergencies. After trying them out at Urban Shield, BPD decided to purchase combat tourniquets, and ended up using them during the deadly downtown Berkeley balcony collapse, they said. City spokesman Matthai Chakko said he has participated in an Urban Shield training himself, helping develop a regional public information plan for the distribution of potable water after a disaster.
Violent events across the country have shown no city is protected, and that officers must be prepared for the worst, the presenters said.
In addition to the tactical exercises, Urban Shield is also known for its trade show, where vendors promote equipment and weapons. The event came under scrutiny when a photo surfaced of a T-shirt that said “Black Rifles Matter” for sale there in 2015.
Cities, counties and utilities throughout the Bay Area and beyond participate in Urban Shield, though Oakland decided to stop hosting the training following public outcry. In January, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to continue the training but established a task force to evaluate the program.
On Tuesday night, a wide range of speakers, including immigrant rights advocates, veterans and health professionals, condemned Berkeley’s participation in Urban Shield. Many said the city should instead focus on equipping community members themselves, many of whom feel targeted by or scared of the police, to prepare for disasters and respond to emergencies.
Some said Urban Shield requires all training scenarios to have a “nexus to terrorism,” arguing that the focus on terrorism orients police against Muslims and people of color, and provides military-style training that is out of touch with the needs of the community.
“Terrorism preparedness is a far stretch from emergency preparedness,” said lead organizers from Stop Urban Shield, in a prepared presentation.
“I want to be absolutely clear that Urban Shield is an Islamophobic and racist program,” said Sharif Zakout, an organizer with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, during public comment. The Urban Shield program was developed in response to 9/11 and the War On Terror, he said. Others said the program’s affiliation with the Department of Homeland Security and Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahearn, who is a vocal fan of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, should be reason enough for Berkeley to withdraw.
Gus Newport, a former Berkeley mayor, had some harsh words for his successors. “I cut my teeth in the Civil Rights Movement being brutalized by the police at the age of 11,” he said. “Stand up for the people” and do not “let the police, management and everybody else tell you what they think is right,” he said.
Some public health professionals said they were skeptical that Urban Shield is the only venue for officers to learn emergency medical response.
The vote on Urban Shield was the last one of the night. Davila and Harrison presented on their opposition to the training, echoing points raised by the public, while other officials said they are convinced the exercises are important or want to wait to hear the new committee’s findings.
“Your concern has made me more concerned,” Maio told the crowd, though she said BPD’s progressive values are at odds with militarization.
Councilwoman Droste, who called into the meeting from North Carolina, said in an email afterward that the deciding factor for her was Urban Shield’s emphasis on regional coordination. The training gives Berkeley an unparalleled opportunity to coordinate with other jurisdictions, which could be necessary in a disaster, she said.
Bartlett, who also voted to continue Urban Shield, said his opinion on the value of anti-terrorism training was “radically altered” when he attended the extremist rallies in Civic Center Park earlier this year and witnessed the threat posed by neo-Nazis.
Though most of the $5.5 million in federal funding distributed through UASI supports the $4.9 million Urban Shield exercises, the money is given out in grants to local law enforcement agencies as well. Those grants, which must be approved by the City Council, enable the police and fire departments to purchase costly safety equipment, said BPD in its report to the council. The funding is not used on weapons, BPD said.
Over the past 10 years, the department has spent hundreds of thousand of dollars in UASI grant funds on bomb disposal equipment, a 3D laser scanner and disaster equipment caches for student housing complexes. The bulk of the cost of the $200,000 armored van is covered by a $125,000 UASI grant. UASI funds have also allowed officers to take more than 100 training courses on a wide variety of topics, according to BPD.
The vote on Berkeley’s relationship with NCRIC was the most divisive among council members.
Based on a department policy, BPD receives more information from the partnership than it provides. All that BPD shares, according to the staff report, are the few suspicious activity reports written each year. Those reports are submitted to the City Council, too.
Through NCRIC, BPD receives access to a license plate recognition tool that is otherwise unavailable, police said. The department uses the data gathered through the tool to track down criminals. A few officers have also been trained as “terrorism liaisons,” learning how to identify potential terrorists through NCRIC. Maio asked BPD to come back to the council with details on what the training entails.
Some council members said they would be reluctant to inhibit BPD’s access to information. Droste said Berkeley has become the target of white nationalists, and public safety could be threatened if officers do not have the tools they need to investigate them. (The only person charged in connection to those rallies so far is a leftist activist, however.) Others, including Arreguín, said it could be better to cut ties with the federal government amid fear around increased surveillance and deportations under President Donald Trump. Some noted that everyone has subconscious biases, and the city should carefully consider how criminal intelligence is used.
The council voted to renew most of the Berkeley Police Department’s agreements with other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in March, but held off on approving the controversial UASI and NCRIC items. The council asked BPD to come back with a more detailed explanation and analysis supporting its relationships with the entities.
The council was scheduled to vote on those agreements May 16, but ended up postponing the decision once midnight arrived, enraging the more than 100 activists who had come to the meeting and waited to express their concerns. They walked out and pledged to return when the item came back — and they did, in full force, Tuesday night.
Huddled outside Longfellow early Wednesday morning after the vote, they said their work had just begun.
This story has been updated with a correction regarding the role of city staff in Urban Shield and at the meeting.