Opinion: A Berkeley police officer says change is needed to regain trust in the post-Ferguson age

Berkeley must determine how to regain the public’s confidence while also effectively addressing crime.

It should surprise few people that the public’s view of policing has undergone a sea change in the last couple of years since the events of Ferguson, Missouri. Not since the international news coverage of the Rodney King incident over two decades ago has American policing come under such intense scrutiny, criticism, and widespread demands for reform.

The Ferguson shooting, along with other recent police use of force incidents, has provoked large segments of the population and powerful politicians–including the former president of the United States–to become supporters of reform and encourage rebuilding trust between the police and the communities they serve. Consequently, many police departments have embraced the proposals made in former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. It outlines a way for police departments to transform themselves from a paradigm of uniformed, armed “warriors,” in a struggle against crime, to that of well-trained and well-equipped civic “guardians” committed to the safety of the community they serve.

In the post-Ferguson age, two issues facing police departments, including Berkeley’s, stand out more than most others: How does law enforcement restore public trust? And, how do we maintain that trust while also effectively addressing current crime and keeping our communities safe?

The answers lie in the way those two issues are intertwined. Without one (trust) the other (effective policing) cannot exist. It must be recognized that there is a new reality facing police departments across the country: The community no longer grants the police the benefit of the doubt in high-conflict incidents, especially when a suspect is killed.

Despite this new suspicion toward police officers, there remain two common assumptions that are still generally true: the community wants the police department to be responsive to their needs, and those who become police officers do so because they genuinely want to serve the public good.

These two assumptions can go a long way toward developing strategies to regain trust, build cooperation, and effectively fight crime in Berkeley. And for the Berkeley Police Department, both assumptions should be exploited as a new, formal, and overarching policy that for the purposes of visualization could loosely be termed the “Firefighter Model.”

The Firefighter Model is different from what the seasoned law enforcement professionals out there might initially expect. I know—and those other senior cops out there know as well—that some officers, having seen the writing on the wall (post-Ferguson), have already invented their own version of the “Firefighter Model.” It goes something like this: cops who feel under-supported believe there is no longer any point for them to proactively look for crime. They believe the community merely expects them to respond to emergencies from the station because the citizenry will no longer tolerate the controversy that proactive police work can draw. As one well-seasoned vet once described it, “They don’t pay firefighters to drive around in their fire engines looking for unreported fires, do they? Why should the police department be any different?”

In reality, however, there are some recently evolved strategies behind the job of a firefighter that might actually help mitigate the current predicament facing police departments. At one time in America, being a firefighter meant primarily fighting fires. In the age of all-wood buildings, fires in large municipalities were a near daily occurrence. Now, however, because of improvements in construction and fire safety, structure fires rarely happen. In fact, national studies show that “…of the roughly 30 million calls America’s fire departments responded to in 2011…only 1.4 million were fire-related–down by more than 50 percent since 1981…and while the total number of calls being routed to the fire departments is higher than it’s ever been, only 5 percent are fire-related” (Boston Globe, 9/8/2013).

Given that reduction, has this affected the reasons why someone would want to become firefighters? The answer, of course, is no. A firefighting job is still among one of the most coveted public sector jobs in America. And, looking at the subject from a local view, has this reduction in fire calls meant that the Berkeley Fire Department is any less prepared or equipped to fight a fire? The answer is, again, a rhetorical “no.” According to the Boston Globe article, “firefighters have become all-purpose emergency service providers who respond to a wide range of situations that have nothing to do with fire. They deliver oxygen masks to people who are experiencing shortness of breath, revive people in cardiac arrest using automatic defibrillators, and administer CPR. They extricate people from car wrecks, deal with spills involving hazardous materials…”

In Berkeley, the fire department also performs water rescues, in-home lift assists for the disabled, investigates smoke and carbon monoxide detector activation and gas leaks, as well as devoting a considerable amount of their time, energy, and resources attending to the medical, medicinal, and mental needs of Berkeley’s burgeoning homeless population.

So how does this model serve the interests of the Berkeley Police Department? It serves it by acknowledging two things: For years, violent crime has been decreasing across the country; and something must be done to address the very real distrust and changing paradigm of policing in America. But the solution is not to do with fewer cops. A police department’s essential function is responding to calls for service from the community and the number of calls for service for the Berkeley police department remains similar or is even greater than years past.

Therefore, the Berkeley police department can still adopt the main tenants of the Firefighter Model in the age of fewer fires with the following facts to guide them: Crime has been trending down for nearly two decades, police must be ready for everything, and Berkeley police officers care very much about the city they serve and remain committed to serving the public good.

With crime down across the country and in Berkeley, with no natural disasters at hand or emergent civil unrest on the immediate horizon, and with the community less interested in seeing proactive, at times aggressive, police intervention, what then, should the Berkeley police be doing? The answer is a lot.

Police departments are the most visible, most accountable, and most responsive face of public government in America. There are few other professions in American culture that have a broader job description than that of a police officer. And the face of local Berkeley government is the Berkeley patrol officer. If a citizen of Berkeley has a problem–even if not an acknowledged police issue per se–the Berkeley police department will respond. We have sent highly trained crime fighters to the following (actual recent calls for service): A mom whose 10-year-old son refused to give her his cell phone while she was addressing a behavior issue; a resident who called to report his cat bit him; and an elderly resident who’d become enraged by the homeless person, camping just outside the doorway of the senior citizen facility, who continually hit him up for cigarettes.

All these calls, while not emergencies, were cries for help of some sort. As a result of that awareness, Berkeley cops will typically apply their training, experience, and judgment to sorting out the issues that provoked a desperate person to call the police instead of taking matters into their own unsteady, possibly unstable, hands.

So how does this model address–whether from the new officers we field or from the seasoned vets we train–the eroded trust of the police in the post-Ferguson age?

In Berkeley, the question can be answered by examining two critical issues: homelessness and mental health. By default, the Berkeley police department owns these two issues. And although it is not up to the department to solve the long-term issues of chronic, sustained, even generational homelessness and/or mental illness–especially for service-resistant persons–it is up to us to respond to complaints about them from the residential community. It is therefore incumbent upon us then to both define our role and to formulate our response to these concerns. And, (with the Firefighter Model in mind) to adequately address the growing social disorder that homelessness brings to help restore the trust of the community. We need to start accepting something that rarely gets much discussion: Berkeley’s homeless people are Berkeley citizens who are entitled to every right and all the respect awarded to the permanently housed residential population. And the housed residential population–even while they expect us to address the quality of life impingements that the homeless and the mentally ill force on them—still expect that we administer to the homeless as fairly, respectfully, and compassionately as we would even the wealthiest homeowner in the city.

So how do we do it? We take advantage of the aforementioned assumption that police officers want to serve the public good, and the community wants us to address their needs. We begin by throwing all of the resources, personnel, and training we can at homelessness, behavior-related mental health issues, and other routine matters that may have formerly garnered the sneer or derision of salty dog, crime-fighting veterans. Again we can look at the Berkeley Fire Department model for guidance. When BFD responds to a simple medical call, they send an ambulance, a ladder truck and five highly trained fire personnel. Presently, if the police were to do such a thing for routine mental health or homeless calls, there would be a backlash against what could be perceived as a gross overreaction. BFD faces no such resentment because they have the community’s trust and respect. It is assumed that they have the community’s best interests in mind, and the community trusts the fire department’s expert judgment when they utilize an impressive amount of resources for each call, no matter how trivial.

Similarly, but of course a little less easily–given the emotional, legal and political ramifications of a police response–we can mitigate some of the natural, initial mistrust of the community by continuing our community outreach and education about our mission. In particular, we should emphasize Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) or our mental health Mobile Crisis Unit in every homeless or mental health-related call. This not only adds a potential resource, it adds a layer of accountability. Also, we should increase the number of officers qualified with less-lethal weapons to decrease in-progress response. We should increase the number of rifle operators to allow sergeants to concentrate their efforts on supervising personnel at the scene, and less on operating equipment–similar to how every BFD fire engine has a driver, a hose operator, and a captain.

By deploying all available resources, and in order to prepare for every contingency, officers will have the resources in place to de-escalate the situation whenever and wherever reasonably possible.

If officers take those steps when they respond to calls involving those with mental illness or who are acting out, it will increase the chances the public will be satisfied that the Berkeley police department did everything in their power to address the issue without resorting to force. This shouldn’t misconstrue the very real potential of any conflict resulting in the death or an injury to a suspect who chooses a path that requires police to use force. But the fact remains that some use of force experts have decided that some incidents that end with an officer swarm, multiple baton strikes, a takedown, or use of a police firearm, might–and the operative word is might–have been resolved if the police had taken more time and directed more resources at the incident.

To our credit, the Berkeley police department usually employs very sound tactics, and some of what is suggested here is already either in place or is being contemplated by command staff. Some of our recent successes that have been covered in the local press, one of which included a suicidal man perched at the top of the bear sculpture on Shattuck Avenue.

The accompanying photograph, complete with crime scene tape securing the perimeter and BFD’s ladder to give the man safe egress, makes a significant statement about the police department’s willingness to employ all available resources to de-escalate the situation while keeping both the subject of the call and the community safe.

A man climbed onto a Berkeley bear sculpture on Sept. 26, 2015 and refused to come down. Photo: William Newton

The officers in this incident were widely praised for their patience and professionalism in talking him down from his public perch, exemplified in the following published comments:

“The cop on the right is a really nice guy…”  a bystander who tried to help told Berkeleyside. “I couldn’t get him to get down but the Berkeley Police let me try and we did have a very nice conversation. When I think about it this is a perfect example of how law enforcement and citizens can work together.”

Additionally, the article about the incident described the resolution in positive terms that Berkeley Police Officers haven’t always enjoyed in the press:

“Police taped off the area around the sculpture to create a safe perimeter and called in a CIT officer — a police officer who is specially trained in de-escalation techniques and dealing with mental health crises — a Special Response Team negotiator and a mental health counselor. The Berkeley Fire Department erected a ladder in case the man decided to come down” Around 3 p.m., said Rittenhouse, the man “came down on his own accord” and ultimately agreed to be checked out by paramedics and transported for medical treatment and an evaluation.”(Berkeleyside).

The police department can get close to a point of renewed trust, but it will take time. As a further step to being trusted equally as both public servants and crime fighters, we should regularly bring officers out of the station and put them and their equipment on ready display–like the fire department–as a sign of our preparedness and our appreciation for the support the community provides. Every significant community event should have the benefit of at least two uniformed officers, ready with recruiting literature and handouts while displaying our latest, greatest piece of equipment.

Additionally, the police department should do the following:

  • Bring back the citizen academy in an abbreviated form but to include scenario training and ride alongs. And, instead of limiting ride alongs to current police department applicants (or to the citizen academy participants), we should offer the opportunity to curious Berkeley residents and local media. Seeing what we do first-hand, how we do it, and, perhaps most importantly, why we do it is an excellent way to bridge the trust gap.
  • Every patrol team should also have a trained press information officer who will be the point person for any on-scene social or print media inquiries; or, even more informally, who can speak to a bystanders curious about what is happening. This will leave supervisors and commanders free for scene management.
  • Increase the number of bike officers, hopefully someday getting close to the former department high of 14 officers and a sergeant; again dedicating two-person teams to both south and west Berkeley where the officers’ high-visibility but approachable presence was, in times past, a much appreciated and dependable reminder of our department’s interest in those neighborhoods.
  • Increase our digital presence to include Facebook, Twitter, Nextdoor, and Instagram, and continue with our current efforts through Nixel to give immediate text, phone, and email updates about crime or in-progress incidents to inform the public and explain our response.
  • Schedule and promote regular public tours of the Public Safety Building and the equipment we use, conducted by seasoned officers with both the expertise and rank-and-file respect to increase the community’s understanding of the department’s needs and our modern mission while also demonstrating our appreciation of the public we serve.
  • Hold home and personal security and self-defense clinics for students, women, and the elderly–taught by some of our underutilized subject-matter experts.
  • Require beat officers and the area coordinator to appear together at every neighborhood watch meeting to solicit community concerns, give updates on past issues, and put a face to a name of local beat officers.
  • Continue with the success of “Coffee with a Cup,” recognizing it as a valuable resource for police and community members to share concerns of mutual interest in an informal setting.
  • Bring back the “Mini-basic Academy—a post-police academy, two week period of local, BPD-specific training that, while indoctrinating new officers into the Berkeley way, was also a chance for them to meet community members and politicians outside the typical setting of a critical incident or in-progress crime when these introductions might otherwise occur.
  • Hold an annual open house where we close the jail, open the police department’s doors, the south parking lot, and the BPD historical unit to satisfy the public’s curiosity about what we do and where we do it. This open house could also successfully showcase the enormous non-police related talent of our staff that includes photography, art in various mediums, and custom-built cars, all while serving food prepared by police and civilian staff who have unrecognized culinary skills.

If a lot of this sounds like the classic model of community policing, it is no accident. Community policing is a tried and true model of modern American policing. But as implemented in years past, Berkeley’s community policing model tended to measure success and failures in a blinding array of written reports. With the successes and mild failures of that old model in mind, it must also be admitted that there is truth in the adage that street cops despise report writing–and requiring them to formally report on anything is the surest way to provoke resistance in a new policy or practice—and that may have been the fatal flaw in BPD’s Community Involved Policing module.

In the Firefighter Model, however, officers would not be required to dream up projects and keep stats and then write reports about them because the Firefighter Model is performance based. Its success depends on officers embracing and then being rewarded for their role as community servants. It is measured not by a formal report, but by officers participating in these important objectives of the modern Berkeley police department: increasing community trust and ensuring community respect–while also fighting crime in the post-Ferguson age of American policing.

Tim Gardner is a longtime Berkeley police officer who has served in the Drug Task Force, Telegraph Avenue Bicycle Patrol, as a Special Investigations Bureau Detective, and, currently, as a Field Training Officer in the Operations Division. The opinions expressed here are his own do not represent in any way the opinions or policies of the Berkeley police department.