Opinion: The Berkeley City Council majority’s approach to public safety needs a complete overhaul

Mayor Arreguín and some members of the City Council are focused on hemming in law enforcement rather than reducing crime. They should do an about face and make Berkeley safer.

Criminal activity in Berkeley and the effects of de-policing

Most violent crime and theft in Berkeley can be attributed to any of three groups:

  • Commuter criminals from nearby cities who come to Berkeley to prey on vulnerable citizens, such as Cal students. Snatch-and-grab laptop and phone thefts are one example; smash-and-grab car thefts are another.
  • Transients, some mentally ill and some with prior felony convictions, who assault other transients and residents, including children. The stabbings and assaults at various encampments around town are examples. A transient feeding meth to a toddler is another, along with the case of a transient striking a small child in the head as she walked through the park to the public library. Not every transient is a criminal, but arrest logs clearly show a significant number of violent crimes are committed by this small population.
  • Gang members engaged in turf wars, chiefly in South Berkeley. The recent drive-by in San Pablo Park on Aug. 18 is one example; fights at illegal dice games are another.

To this list of violent crimes, we can add illegal dice games, prostitution, identity theft, and illegal drug dealing.

Before BPD staffing levels fell to today’s crisis levels, the response to an incident like the San Pablo shooting would have been swift, proportional, and focused on reassuring the justly frightened members of the community. In my correspondence with Chris Stines, president of the Berkeley Police Association, he explained the difference between then and now as follows:

“Our response to a shooting used to be a very visible presence which gave comfort to the community and discomfort to the criminals. Both groups knew we would not tolerate continued violence, and that we would be engaging, investigating, and enforcing as needed to dissuade threats to public safety. We no longer have those resources. We don’t have bike patrols, or crime suppression teams, or special investigation teams. All of those have been disbanded at the urging of anti-police activists who have discouraged grassroots interactions with the community over the narrative they have created about militarization and over-policing.”

Activism by itself cannot explain this downturn. For a full explanation, we must look instead at the actions of Mayor Arreguín and his majority in supporting the anti-police agenda.

De-policing is not a Public Safety strategy

In the wake of the San Pablo Park incident, the mayor claimed, as he has in the past, that public safety is one of his “top priorities.” But an examination of the Mayor’s positions on public safety, taken from his website, reveals an agenda that has little to do with safety and everything to do with de-policing our city.

Arreguín details three areas of focus under the heading of public safety:

  • Body cameras for Berkeley police officers
  • Finding alternatives to Urban Shield for training police officers
  • Using restorative justice as an alternative to arrest, trial, conviction, and incarceration

Taking these in order:

  • Body cameras are not a crime deterrent; they are a tool for monitoring interactions between officers and the public. They are useful (and welcomed by officers) insofar as they shed light on how a contact unfolded, but they will do nothing to mitigate the criminal activity our city is experiencing.
  • Where officers get their training will also do nothing to mitigate criminal activity. Conversely, taking away training or letting non-experts impose sub-standard alternatives will reduce the effectiveness of our department and demoralize career-minded officers.
  • Restorative justice is a controversial and, if BUSD is any indication, frequently misapplied technique for reducing consequences for criminals. It is difficult to imagine applying these techniques to a gang member who sprays bullets into a public park or a deranged transient who feeds meth to a toddler.

BPD’s record warrants trust and political support

In other communications, the mayor and his allies on the council – in particular, Kate Harrison, Cheryl Davila, Ben Bartlett, and Kriss Worthington – have devoted their attention to what they claim is a problem of racial disparity in policing. As evidence, they refer to a report that ironically praises Berkeley Police for their performance in this area: our department has the lowest rate of racial disparity in its stops of any police department that has been studied in the nation. Moreover, a New York Times story, published shortly after the Ferguson crisis, compared the racial makeup of police departments with the communities they serve. Berkeley stood alone with a department that is MORE diverse than the city itself. The Council should be lauding BPD for its leadership in this area, not castigating them.

The same council members have, in varying degrees, resisted giving the police access to standard tools, such as K9s, tasers, helicopters, and armored vans. The claim is that doing so would result in an outbreak of excessive force.

In fact, BPD has had access to OC pepper spray, after a prolonged battle in the 90s, and there have been entire years when it hasn’t been deployed at all. Further, they have an exemplary record of de-escalation and I have personally witnessed the extraordinary lengths they go to to avoid deploying force when a self-medicating, mentally ill transient threatened to harm himself and officers with a knife in front of my home.

The City Council has wasted many hours this year on a deeply flawed series of proposals, advanced by the same members, to produce a more muscular Police Review Commission, an organization which is demonstrably ineffective and should be cut back rather than augmented. This does not mean that the police, who are themselves members of the community, should not be accountable. But the framework for that accountability should be rooted in the culture of respect and collaboration that we enjoy and not the misguided drive to fix the Ferguson department by proxy.

BPD is in crisis and needs political support

What do all of these planks of the Mayor and his majority’s public safety platform have in common? Answer: a focus on hemming in law enforcement. None of these objectives will improve public safety at all and the agenda is simply dog whistle politics for the anti-police activists who haunt City Council meetings and who have, incredibly, been appointed to oversight roles in an intentional display of antagonism toward the department.

The mayor and his majority have come forward with exactly zero proposals for combatting violent crime and theft in the city. The police are critically understaffed and have had to disband specialized units, like the Drug Task Force, that used to make as many as one arrest/day. Council members, such as Harrison, have declared support for more bike cops in the Downtown area, but such statements are meaningless without adequate staffing.

We have the funding to staff up. What we lack are elected officials who are committed — in word and in deed — to fostering a professional setting where today’s top talent wants to work. Officers have choices, like everyone else in this very tight labor market, and like all of us they want to work in places where they are supported and where their professionalism and dedication are respected.

Concretely, support from the council means:

– stop meddling in operational matters. Empower the department leadership and the city manager to run an effective department within broad parameters for performance and accountability

– stop pandering to anti-police activists and remove them from oversight roles

– undertake a clear-eyed assessment of the largely ineffective and irrelevant Police Review Commission and reduce its scope

– support recruitment and retention efforts by leading a shift to a respectful and supportive work environment. Trust the department professionals to make wise use of modern tools and training. Verify their results dispassionately and pragmatically.

Berkeley deserves better from its leaders. Will they deliver?

Eric Friedman leads a data science and engineering organization. He lives with his family in District 4 and enjoys cycling, wind sports and making wooden furniture.