Opinion: Keeping Berkeley police in Urban Shield training will make our community safer

As a police review commissioner, I observed the Urban Shield exercises last September. They provide critical training for first responders that Berkeley needs.

Guns are proliferating in our society. The streets are meaner. The criminals are bolder. There are more frequent active shooter situations all over the country. Berkeley has already been targeted by the far right and Antifa in last years downtown violent protests and will likely continue to be a target in the Trump age due to our political left leanings. To be prepared for these eventualities we must be proactive, not reactive, in training and equipping the Berkeley Police Department (BPD) and other city emergency responders. Wringing our hands and blaming BPD for an insufficient response after a violent protest, mass shooting or pedestrians being run down at a Berkeley street festival cannot be an option. We must support BPD and other departments to get the training and equipment they need. That’s where Urban Shield emergency response training can help.

Urban Shield Training

As a police review commissioner, I observed the Urban Shield exercises for two days last September. The training was based on “real life” emergency situations encountered by emergency response teams around the US and world to provide relevant hands-on situational vignettes to benefit local emergency responders. The training provided very useful information and practice for police, fire, public works, and citizens to prepare for emergencies in their communities.

Since some people in our community paint a picture that Urban Shield emergency response training of the BPD SRT (Special Response Team) only results in the militarization of BPD, I was surprised at the wide variety of training available including armed protesters, event security, active shooter and hostage situations at theaters, hospitals, nightclubs, hotels and in bus and Amtrak situations, and biological and chemical response, rail collision, structure collapse, water rescue, earthquake and severe weather response to name a few, where both police and fire would need to work together. Community members also participated in focusing on organization and readiness. There were hundreds of emergency responders from all over California participating at 36 locations in the Bay Area.

The BPD SRT participated in a hostage situation scenario and a scenario of a truck running down pedestrians on a crowded street, both of which are certainly not outside of what might eventually be experienced in Berkeley.

In my opinion, this training greatly benefits BPD and other city departments and improves overall community safety. As citizens, it’s our responsibility to support BPD and other departments in their efforts to be ready to respond to emergencies.

Police Militarization??

Given the concern expressed by some members of the community about Urban Shield militarizing our police force I expected to find a lot of heavy weapons, armored personnel vehicles, explosives, and other strictly military weaponry and equipment at the Urban Shield vendor show. But there was nothing I saw that would be inappropriate for city police department use. Much of the equipment and technology was about officer safety. Of course, there were some weapons displayed, but of a small arms nature compared to heavier military equipment. While some of this equipment may not be used in Berkeley due to local policies, it certainly was not out of line for policing activities.

Some surveillance technology was also displayed at the vendor show. But the purchase of such equipment will eventually be governed by Berkeley’s pending technology surveillance ordinance that would require a public hearing before purchase.

I don’t see the signs of recent BPD militarization. In fact, the BPD SRT team is outfitted with essentially the same type of arms and equipment that were used by the SRT team 20 years ago. In addition to their handguns, some BPD patrol officers now have access to rifles in addition to the shotguns as was the case 20 years ago. But BPD can still be easily out-gunned on the street from both legal and illegal weapons. Yet there has been only one SRT-officer-involved shooting in the past 16 years and no officer-involved shootings of any kind in the last 6 years, unlike many other police agencies.

Also, BPD now has a situation de-escalation training program and a crisis intervention training program for all officers which are intended to reduce the chances of violent confrontations and to refer people to the appropriate place for them to receive help; both signs of softening the police footprint not police militarization.

While there is always room for improvement, this record is commendable and a tribute to BPD’s performance.

The City Chooses the Training and Equipment it Wants from Urban Shield

Urban Shield provides access to a critical piece of BPD’s training and safety equipment needs. But Urban Shield does not mandate which training the city must take or which financial grants for equipment that BPD must apply for—it is solely up to the city.

If BPD is withdrawn from Urban Shield it will not receive this type of training at all because there are no other no-cost comparable training programs. This will reduce both community safety and officer safety.

Our cops have a tough and dangerous job. We need to find ways to support them.

Let’s keep BPD in Urban Shield emergency response training. Let the City Council know your opinion prior to its upcoming meeting July 23.

Editor’s Note: Berkeleyside updated the publication time after publication due to a technical issue with our daily newsletter. No other changes were made.

Terry Roberts is a member of the Berkeley Police Review Commission and has formerly served on the Berkeley Transportation Commission. He was an observer at the 2017 Urban Shield Emergency Response Training Exercises.