Opinion: Berkeley must withdraw its police from Urban Shield

Urban Shield trainees were responsible for the violent treatment of protestors in 2014 and 2018. The exercises train police to “shoot to kill,” too. Berkeley must withdraw.

In March, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted, 4-1, to end the Homeland Security-funded exercise known as Urban Shield, “as currently constituted,” after this year. Berkeley Police have participated in the militarized Urban Shield SWAT team competition since it began in 2007. In June, a subcommittee of the Berkeley City Council voted to recommend sitting out the Urban Shield SWAT competition and vendor show in 2018, while supporting fire, EMT, emergency manager, and CERT volunteer participation and evaluating Berkeley’s role in the reconstituted exercise next year. That is the right decision, for multiple reasons.

City Councilwoman Susan Wengraf supports Urban Shield because she says its repeated exposure to live shooter situations helps Berkeley police to act “without thinking.” Unfortunately, the action Urban Shield induces is shooting to kill. This is the “conditioned response” that “Bulletproof” police trainer Dave Grossman says police need in order to kill. The vast majority of Urban Shield scenarios don’t admit the possibility of de-escalation or non-fatalities. SWAT teams seeking to win the Urban Shield competition are not penalized for eliminating suspects in the role plays, according to the scoring sheets used. In one Urban Shield scenario one of us witnessed as an observer last year, the actual event on which the event was based – a gunman at Children’s Hospital in Oakland – was resolved without any shooting or deaths. The Urban Shield scenario required killing the gunman.

As revealed in stops data analyzed by the Center for Policing Equity, BPD already engages in racially disparate treatment. That puts black Bekeleyans at greater risk from fallout that could result from Urban Shield’s kill-first approach.

One officer says Berkeley SWAT’s participation in Urban Shield hasn’t led to shootings. BPD officers who participated in Urban Shield did shoot and kill armed suspects in 2008 and 2010. In any case, SWAT officers not killing unarmed persons is a very low bar for measuring success.

Berkeley Urban Shield trainees were directly responsible for the violent treatment of nonviolent protesters in December 2014 and again last June. At other times, such as during last April’s confrontations between white supremacists and counter-protesters, BPD’s crowd control methods have been admirably restrained and focused on curtailing violent activity. But Urban Shield is not designed to train in crowd control, which is specifically excluded in the guidelines for Urban Shield adopted by Alameda County.

Urban Shield supporters say it’s key for police, fire and medical responders to train together. But by design Berkeley’s SWAT team competes alone in Urban Shield, separate from other Berkeley participants.

Several proponents have suggested that by participating in its last year, Berkeley could attempt to reform Urban Shield “from within.” This approach is unrealistic. Berkeley has no seat at the table for designing Urban Shield this year.

Moreover, the office of Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern, which makes those decisions, has demonstrated repeatedly that it cannot be trusted to fulfill commitments to reform. Even after promising reforms, the Sheriff’s Office violated guidelines against surveillance training agreed with the Board of Supervisors; hosted the extremist group Oathkeepers at the Sheriff’s booth in the Urban Shield “community fair”; included an ICE SWAT team; and used a contractor, Strategic Operations, Inc., that employs racist ‘humanoid’ target figures, despite the Board of Supervisors rejection of that contract. It is not about “punishing” the sheriff, but about how unreliable the sheriff is to enact reforms that are compatible with Berkeley values.

Berkeley has other priorities for emergency preparedness with a much greater capability deficit and level of need than BPD’s preparation for terrorist or even active shooter incidents. These include community preparation for disasters – including shooter incidents – and fire prevention, both in the hills, where there is growing excess brush, and in flatlands where there are major subsurface gas lines.

One of the most important reasons for the city to withdraw from Urban Shield’s SWAT competition and vendor show is the broad support for different priorities from Berkeley residents.

Last year, public health researcher Dr. Adrianne Aron designed a survey of Berkeley residents’ priorities for the training of Berkeley police, asking them to identify five areas out of 15 with the highest priority, ranging from preparedness for terrorist attacks to assistance to neighborhood watch groups, from de-escalation of violence to traffic and auto safety. Of 274 residents surveyed in the downtown area, without reference to Urban Shield, the training priorities chosen most often were “understanding of mental health-related behaviors” (197), “de-escalation of violent situations” (177), and “sensitivity to cultural differences in our diverse community” (159). Less than half as many people prioritized “preparedness for mass shootings” (64), and even fewer “preparedness for terrorist attacks by groups such as ISIS” (34), or “selection and use of newest weapons” (12).

Berkeley residents, and BPD itself, should support the decision by Alameda County and Berkeley leaders to re-orient emergency preparedness in ways that meet our most pressing needs.

Kacey Carpenter is a Berkeley resident, an activist, and the author of My Journey with Bernie. John Lindsay-Poland is healing justice associate at the American Friends Service Committee and served on the Alameda County Urban Shield Task Force.