Opinion: Urban Shield provides ‘competition’ not practical training for Berkeley police

Only eight police officers go to the SWAT *competition* so pulling them out will not materially affect the BPD’s ability to respond to a disaster.

This afternoon the City Council will decide whether or not to limit participation in Urban Shield by the Berkeley police department this year. In six simultaneously released editorials, a series of debatable, and to my mind, incorrect, arguments were made in support of the BPD’s participation in this militarized, unrealistic and disturbing wargame. Here are rebuttals to the main points made in the editorials:

  • Pulling out of Urban Shield will mean a loss of highly trained, experienced and dedicated officers and the city’s future ability to properly respond to disaster events.

Pulling eight officers, of over 100, out of a SWAT *competition* (it is not a training), will not materially affect the BPD’s ability to respond to a disaster. If the police are concerned about their ability to respond to disasters they should come up with a comprehensive plan to do that (which they tellingly do not have). The city has not held a city-wide earthquake drill in years, to a large extent because they have been distracted by Urban Shield.

  • The focus of Urban Shield is on mass care and sheltering operations

The proposal before the City Council is to continue participating in the aspects of Urban Shield that prepare for mass care and sheltering operations. The SWAT scenarios and vendor show from which Berkeley would withdraw this year do not address shelter, community preparedness, or access to water and food in an emergency.

  • The size of the force is now at a historic low. Sworn officers have left Berkeley citing lack of community support, skills training and specialized assignments as their reasons to either retire early or accept better opportunities elsewhere.

The police union has made a series of claims regarding the alleged poor working conditions of the BPD. BPD officers are some of the best-compensated officers in the region with excellent benefits. Police departments all over the Bay Area are below their peaks. If BPD’s officers were so fed up they would already have left. Furthermore, threatening to leave because your community prioritizes smart, neighborhood policing and is not okay with heavy weapons, inappropriate tactics and the militarization of routine policing, is distinctly unprofessional behavior.

  • The city is having difficulty filling sworn officer positions and may be forced to lower its standards for employment in order to attract applicants.

BPD has not conducted a survey to determine why officers have left or retired. It could have to do with the generous retirement packages. Even if Berkeley lowers its standards – and there has been zero evidence other than hearsay – this has nothing to do with Urban Shield.

  • Reports of violent crime are ticking upward. In the first six months of 2018, Berkeleyside reported a total of 29 gun-related incidents: robberies, shootings including one death, and a sexual assault at gunpoint – 14 more gun-related crimes than in all of 2017.

Some crime stats are up and are slightly over their historic lows. We are, in fact, living through one of the lowest crime rates in over 30 years. The numbers being used are highly selective and attempting to conclude that we have an increasing crime problem that needs to be addressed by spending more money on policing is highly debatable. The BPD’s union is determined to add officers and increase compensation – they are scaring the people who live here to achieve that.

  • Participating SWAT teams – like Berkeley’s SRT – go through over 30 training scenarios over the 48-hour period held at locations all over the Bay Area, with at most four hours of sleep.

These are not trainings, they are competitions. Any (neutral) professional involved in these types of events will clearly state that they have little, if any, benefit as “training”. The scenarios participated in are extremely unrealistic and irrelevant to the job that we hire the police to perform in Berkeley.

  • What I saw at Urban Shield was starkly different from what I had been prepared to see based on characterizations of the program.

You saw only a small part of what was going on. Some scenarios, due to community pushback, like this one, have been altered. This is window dressing. Furthermore, there is nothing in the scenario described that necessitated Urban Shield as a venue. Similar scenarios could have been done in the course of the BPD’s normal training regimine.

  • There is no other comparable scenario-based training that helps them prepare for life-threatening incidents.

The idea that there are no good alternatives to Urban Shield is obviously not true. Very few of Berkeley’s SRT team, let alone the vast majority of officers in the Bay Area and the rest of the country, participate in Urban Shield. If we believe that not attending Urban Shield puts us at risk then we have to believe that the training of most of Berkeley’s police force, as well as all the police forces in the Bay Area and the United States, is woefully inadequate.

  • Our police officers and chief have told the mayor and council repeatedly that withdrawing the tactical team would put our first responders and community in harm’s way and further damage morale.

See above – the BPD’s union is currently in heated contract negotiations. Threatening to quit or not to do the job you were hired to do, which for police officers has always included being subjected to public scrutiny and criticism, is unprofessional. Our police are highly compensated and work in a relatively low crime and stress situation.

  • Most of us want foot patrols, bike cops in San Pablo Park, and traffic enforcement units across the City. That isn’t happening. It’s not happening because there is an exodus of our police officers.

Sending police officers for a 48 hour wargame is not going to bring back bike patrols. Crime in Berkeley is historically way down, over 35% of police activity is directly related to homelessness. The lack of BPD officers on bikes and in neighborhoods is a direct result of decisions regarding priorities and approach. Everything is being blamed on “low morale” and “inadequate staffing” and will be until the contract negotiations are concluded.

  • But the balcony collapse….

This is primarily a fire department issue. The BFD is highly trained and responded well in this instance. If the BPD feels that they need advanced bleeding control training (the underlying training they refer to in connection with this event) then that is available and readily accessible and should be given to every police officer. The City Council will consider pulling BPD out of Urban Shield SWAT competition, for this year only. It will not affect the BFD.

  • 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.

Access to assault weapons is a huge problem in our country. However our streets are much, much safer than they have been since the early 60s and violent crime is a fraction of what it was just a few decades ago. *Nothing* in Urban Shield relates to an “active shooter” incident. The FBI and our own BPD have made this abundantly clear. In active shooter situations there is no time to assemble the SRT team. All of our BPD officers should receive active shooter training. Spending time at Urban Shield diminishes attention that should be better spent.

  • 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.

This kind of fear mongering is sad, and sadder still since nothing about Urban Shield will address any of these issues.

  • As a police review commissioner…

For every police review commissioner who supports Urban Shield participation, there are two who do not. It seems that when people listen to their police review commissioners is dependent on their position on a particular issue.

  • The police are required to act in almost any such incident especially in terms of crowd control and minimizing crimes of opportunity.

How much “crowd control” and “crimes of opportunity” have we seen in a major earthquake or during a wildfire? How do Urban Shield scenarios that emphasize well trained and heavily armed “terrorists” prepare the police for the dangers we actually face?

  • In addition, most disaster scenarios involve intense action on the part of first responders that lasts for long periods (days, at least). Because of the rarity of these situations, it is critical that all first responders, including fire, health services and police train together to deal with these situations in as realistic a form as possible.

First responders have had to deal with multi-day events for a long, long time. There are specific protocols and planning that go into this. There is no systematic training regimen to prepare first responders for these types of situations and outside of a small number of speciality units no police force in the country trains for these types of deployments. From this sort of critique we have to extrapolate that every first responder in the country needs to participate in Urban Shield, if we need it in Berkeley we need it pretty much everywhere, right? This is absurd on its face.   BPD sends eight officers a year to Urban Shield, that leaves over 100 out. In a major disaster the net effect of any (debatable) benefit those officers will have is going to be negligible to non-existent. Rather than pretend that Urban Shield is the be all and end all for training and readiness the BPD and BFD should concentrate on our real safety needs.

I’m sure that some people reading this will detect a bit of exasperation. Yesterday morning I found out that Berkeleyside decided to publish seven opinion pieces on the issue in support of BPD’s participation in Urban Shield. I have spent countless hours on this issue over the last two years. It is a terrible shame that the BPD has spent so much time on this issue rather than simply course correcting and addressing Berkeley’s real safety needs.

Just for the record – I am a 24+ year resident of Berkeley. I am a certified WIlderness First Responder with hundreds of hours of advanced first aid training including CPR for the Professional Rescuer, Advanced Bleeding Control, and other specialized training. I am also a team lead for a Search and Rescue team and have participated in multiple mass casualty training scenarios. I don’t consider myself an expert – just someone who has practical experience in this area and cares deeply about everyone’s safety. Urban Shield is wrong for the Berkeley Police Department.

Daniel Robinson is a resident of Berkeley and a citizen first responder.