Opinion: Let’s remove the hyperbolic rhetoric when discussing Urban Shield

How do we get the value of Urban Shield training without the militaristic agendas that are antithetical to most people in Berkeley and to its police and fire departments?

The hyperbolic rhetoric that has dominated discussions about Urban Shield and the participation of city agencies in it has provided heat but little light.

Reasonable conversations about what Urban Shield is and isn’t have been impossible in the toxic environment created by some who portray policing in Berkeley as something akin to Ferguson MO. A step back is needed and a rational conversation has to take place.

For background, I served on the Police Review Commission for nearly eight years in the 1980s. Those were different times, both in California and Berkeley. And we had a different police department than we do now.  George Deukmejian had been attorney general and then governor, running on a “law and order” platform that including recalling three judges of the California Supreme Court because they didn’t support the death penalty. PORAC, the statewide Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, conducted a vitriolic campaign against civilian oversight, with a special focus on Berkeley.

Every PRC meeting was a shouting match between attorneys from PORAC and the ACLU, with the officers’ then union instructing its members not to cooperate with the Commission or its investigator. More than once, while driving, an officer in a patrol car would greet me by name, just so I knew they knew who I was.  The rank and file of the department had both a union and a black officers’ organization.  

It took years, two city managers and strong Council support to gradually change this situation and the department. BPD was among the first in the state to adopt training in handling rape cases in a sensitive way that protected the victim. Strategies of de-escalation were pioneered by BPD. The police department we have today more closely resembles the priorities and policies of this city and is highly regarded because of that.  Officers are professional, educated and more community-oriented that in those difficult, rancorous decades.

Currently I work with both BPD and the Berkeley Fire Department in Career Technical Education programs at Berkeley High. These programs are aimed at introducing Berkeley students to careers right here: bringing the community into the two key public safety organizations that serve this city.

Both departments and their respective unions have been full and enthusiastic partners, helping with curricula, providing ride-alongs, mentoring, classroom lectures and tours. Students can choose from a variety of careers through these pathways, including paramedic, nursing, firefighting, police officer, parole/probation officers, counseling and advocates, law, paralegals and more.  

This brings me to Urban Shield. Like most people in Berkeley, I had no idea what Urban Shield actually was, or what BPD and BFD got out of it. It’s useful to ask and important to know.  

The de-escalation training that BPD pioneered and employs so successful is part of Urban Shield. There is extensive training in MCI (multiple casualty incident). Think of the recent spate of North Bay fires, or the Oakland hills fire, or the 2015 balcony collapse on Kittredge Street in downtown Berkeley. Or when the Hayward fault ruptures.

There is stress inoculation for how to respond when structures collapse, as in an earthquake, for example.  Functioning at a high level of stress in a life-threatening crisis is not inherent to any person. It requires practice. Watch any YouTube video of a critical incident and see what the majority of people are doing — nothing. They are in shock. Police officers are not different if they haven’t gone through training.

There’s training in facing fear in crisis situations — operating in confined spaces, at extreme heights, or even in public transit tubes or near freeways. Berkeley can’t build a Bay Bridge or a Caldecott Tunnel, or a Transamerica building for first responders to train on. Urban Shield allows BPD (and BFD) to learn how to enter a sewer or a collapsed building or a building on fire as training exercises are conducted in comparable environments.

Last year, in a hostage situation, a person attempted to flee into the bay. Urban Shield provides the only training BPD has for water rescue.  

However, there’s the aspect of how this training is funneled through to city departments. And therein lies the rub.  

Money, resource and training are under the direction of Alameda County Sheriff G. Ahern, who most decidedly doesn’t represent the values of Berkeley or its police and fire departments. Add to that the push from Washington, D.C. to militarize police responses in crisis situations.  

How do we get the value of the training, equipment and coordination with other public safety agencies without the militaristic agendas that are antithetical to most people in Berkeley, and are not used anyway by police or fire departments here?

That is the conversation that needs to be had, not factually inaccurate, inflammatory rhetoric that portrays a police department that doesn’t exist here.

Stephanie Allan has been a Berkeley resident, BUSD parent, homeowner and taxpayer since 1969.