Opinion: The military-like Urban Shield exercises are militarizing Berkeley police

The training is prompting police officers to act more aggressively, particularly with those who have a mental illness or are experiencing homelessness.

Since 2007, Urban Shield has been in effect, and typically hosted by Alameda County. Urban Shield provides militarized tactical exercises in order to be better prepared for possible terrorist attacks. What could be wrong with having the tools and training needed to respond to the worst case incidents, including mass shootings? While this weapons expo attracts many vendors and fans, my concern is how the Berkeley Police Department is using this type of training on its own citizens.

There are numerous concerns regarding the militarization of the Berkeley Police Department, ranging from a push to acquire Tasers, requesting an armored personnel carrier, and participation in the annual Urban Shield exercise. In 2017, the Berkeley Police Department reached a settlement with Black Live Matter protestors, who successfully proved not only that the police used excessive force during the 2014 protests. “Officers used clubs and tear gas on the crowds and said that they were under attack by protesters throwing rocks, bottles, and other objects,” according to a 2017 article.  Using the abovementioned type of weapons, on a crowd of protestors is something typically seen on television when discussing other militarized counties.

In 2013, Kayla Moore was killed by Berkeley police, and since that time our lives have continued to rotate around justice for Kayla, and those who have been victims of police brutality and discrimination. My objection to Urban Shield is that in the last five years I have seen a once well-respected police force turn into a pack of militarized bullies, targeting those of color. A report, released in 2017, detailed the racial disparities in Berkeley policing, which supports longstanding community claims that Berkeley Police Department officers treat non-white residents with more suspicion. We are forced to live in a culture where individuals of color, suspected of minor crimes, are met with a police presence that almost always leads to use of force, and in the case of Kayla Moore, lethal use of force.

In 2016, the community was able to review the police department’s own statistics, gathered under the new Fair and Impartial Policing Policy. And they are damning. They show that when black people are stopped by the Berkeley police, they are subject to a search 22% of the time, where whites are searched only 7% of the time, a discrepancy of more than three to one. The report demonstrated that black people are searched more often than whites, and the stop produces no “evidence, contraband, or weapon” that justifies the police action.

The city of Berkeley relies on the police to intervene in crises, in part due to the misconception that people with mental health disabilities are violent. The Berkeley police department is equipped to act as an elite military unit, but they cannot be trusted to act as caregivers. We see again and again that Berkeley cops react in dangerous and deadly extremes. While BPD will not be acquiring war-time weapons, the “militarized” mentality still exists. Kayla was not killed by flash grenades, but by officers who could not take the time to talk to a member of their community in the midst of a nonviolent mental health episode.

Kayla lived in a town where someone who wants help dealing with a mental health crisis can either leave a message for the Mobile Crisis Team or call a non-emergency number and speak with a police dispatcher. Kayla lived in a town that will routinely send a firetruck, an ambulance, and anywhere from four to 10 police officers in response to a call for help, but rarely NO ONE with the training to deliver actual mental health assistance.

A gap in services has been created over the years and the crisis that currently exists was long in the making. Now, there are forces in Berkeley that would prefer to simply run the mentally disabled, homeless and others who just can’t cut it or fit in, out of town; this is done through a combination of economic apartheid and police intimidation.

The militarization of mental health is also becoming a national issue. The transfer of military weapons, vehicles and techniques is well documented and has a cost of billions of dollars. At the same time as they are receiving military training, cops are also expected to be the ones to “deal” with people on the streets with mental disabilities because the funds for real mental health workers are now non-existent. At times, people have to get arrested and go to jail before they can access certain city services.

In 2015, it was noted that people with mental disabilities were 16 times more likely to be killed by police than those without disabilities. The police receive a one-day training on mental health and de-escalation, but who is responsible for de-escalating the police?

In the midst of all this policing, billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment flows from the federal government to state and local police departments. Departments use these wartime weapons in everyday policing, which has unfairly targeted people of color. Our neighborhoods are not war zones, and police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies. As a community, we need to resist Urban Shield. We have the opportunity to implement and create change so that men and woman of color, the homeless, and the mentally disabled residents of Berkeley are provided with services and support, and not part of the revolving door from jail and to the streets, or in the case of Kayla Moore, a death sentence.

Maria Moore is the sister of Kayla Moore who died while in police custody in 2013. She was born and raised in Berkeley and is a graduate of UC Berkeley.