Opinion: Urban Shield’s militarized training still misses the mark

The current configuration of the Urban Shield exercises contributes to the militarization of our department and is overly focused on dramatic, weaponized responses to incidents.

As a Berkeley resident for almost 40 years, I have a deep interest in the safety and well being of my community. However, it is my belief that the current configuration of the Urban Shield exercises contributes to the militarization of our department and is overly focused on dramatic, weaponized responses to incidents. The fundamental flaw in the design of the Urban Shield exercises is that, while they claim to be about disaster preparedness, the police component appears to be almost exclusively focused on terrorism/active shooter scenarios. I believe that we need disaster planning that maximizes community involvement, increases coordination between cities and departments, and accounts for multiple, simultaneous events. It should not require that our police support profit-seeking weapons dealers or participate in scenarios that reinforce racial, political or gender stereotypes.

As a Police Review Commissioner, I was able to observe some of the 2017 training scenarios. The SWAT and Special Response Teams (SRT) that we observed were involved in a competition where their skills were demonstrated and evaluated. It was an impressive display of professional soldiering and the tight-knit groups of eight moved with great precision through the scenarios that we observed. However, beyond the quick debrief at the end of each scenario, we saw no actual instruction or classes being taught. I was informed that the competitors had been educated through trainings that originate with P.O.S.T. (Peace Officer Standards and Training) and elsewhere. For Berkeley’s SRT, Urban Shield is more of a competition than an educational event.

As for community involvement in disaster preparedness, last year was the first year that the CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) were included in the weekend events, but they had very little connection to the activities of the police teams. There was also a recently added “Resource Fair” that had some tables with information about emergency preparedness. It also included the Oath Keepers (who the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as a hate group and which is now threatening to conduct armed protests outside of Rep. Maxine Waters office in LA.). This, coupled with a strong presence by the “Young Marines”, indicated a significant military influence.

As I observed the scenarios, a few things concerned me. For example, in one simulation involving a supposed mad man, there was a Guy Fawkes (Anonymous) poster where a young woman was supposedly chained up to a wall. Similarly, there was an “armed protesters” scenario that also contributed to a kind of political stereotyping that is counter productive and orients our officers in a particular political direction. Officers from the Philippines and Columbian military welcomed us to view some of the scenarios. Their role was a bit unclear to us.

If Berkeley’s community has any say into what kind of police department we develop and support, then this issue really gets to the heart of what kind of department BPD will become. We spend our city resources training and recruiting officers with a variety of skills to meet the diverse needs of our community. The Police Review Commission has asked the chief to provide us with an annual training plan for BPD officers so that we can see the extent to which current officer trainings represents a balance and diversity of skills from de-escalation to engaging active shooters. Unfortunately, the lack of disclosure thus far puts us at a disadvantage when trying to assess the importance of this training relative to a balanced, overall professional development plan.

Over and over again, our community has expressed concern that, in the event of a real emergency, we will need assistance accessing vital services, tending to the wounded, and providing for the basic needs of our community. I feel that, because the funding for these exercises requires there be a “nexus to terrorism”, the part of the Urban Shield exercises that involve police departments have been hopelessly compromised with a bias that undermines its real effectiveness. By 2019, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors will have developed a reconstituted emergency prevention and response-training program. I support a re-envisioning of our current participation in these disaster-planning efforts. It makes sense to have BPD wait until 2019 to re-join a new, more practical and less militarized version of disaster preparedness training.

Andrea Pritchett is a member of the police review commission and is active in Copwatch.