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Berkeley is "Reimagining Public Safety" All Wrong

This piece was originally published in the May 2022 issue of Street Spirit and can be read online there. Support your local Street Spirit vendors!

As of May 2022, it will have been well over a year and a half since the Berkeley City Council unanimously passed a resolution to defund the Berkeley Police Department (BPD) by 50 percent as a result of proposals by multiple councilmembers. That long reimagining process is coming to a crucial crossroads as the city council decides which of the recommendations they will move forward with, and budget for. It is easy to get lost in the bureaucracy of the city process to reimagine public safety. So, where are we now?

Berkeley’s proposed Specialized Care Unit (SCU) is moving slowly forward with a pilot program to respond to the mental health and substance use crises on our streets. The plan to remove police from traffic stops with BerkDoT (Department of Transportation) is stalled because of legal and labor requirements. The National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR) and Reimagining Public Safety Task Force (RPSTF) have both submitted their extensive recommendations to the city council. However, the City Manager, Dee Williams-Ridley, was empowered to pick apart these recommendations and present a proposal to city council on April 21, 2022.

The City Manager’s proposal contains money for the SCU and other reimagining recommendations that reduce the harmful impacts of police on our community. However, it also includes an increased police budget, increased police personnel, and new police units. The City Manager’s plan includes what looks like the same proposal by District 2 Councilmember Terry Taplin for a “Flex” police unit. Taplin’s proposal itself is underdeveloped and vague, but what it does include is deeply troubling.

The “Flex” unit is based on what it calls the “SARA” model (Scanning, Analysis, Response, and Assessment). According to Taplin’s proposal, “scanning” refers to “examining which properties in a given area have the highest number of calls for service,” then focusing police energy on those properties. This is straight out of the confirmation bias playbook, where the term “data-driven” is often used to mask racist police tactics. “Data-driven” in this context means police are working with data they themselves collect, therefore it is inequitable along class and race lines just like policing is. This will undoubtedly lead to increased policing of Berkeley’s Black, brown, and unhoused communities in South and West Berkeley who already experience disproportionate policing.

The City Manager’s proposal includes $11 million in increases to the Berkeley police budget. Alarmingly, the proposal does not mention the Police Accountability Board or any other independent oversight of police. How can Berkeley be increasing police spending while neglecting any processes for police accountability? It is additionally shocking that these budget increases to BPD would be approved only weeks after the City Auditor released the BPD overtime audit, revealing gross mismanagement regarding overtime and outside contracts. This includes BPD’s ten-plus-year pattern of increasingly exceeding their overtime budget. In 2020, the overtime spending was $4.8 million over budget, and while BPD complained of understaffing, they hired out officers as private security, including for the Apple store on 4th Street.

Why would we hire more police positions while current officers are working as private security for businesses in Berkeley? What is the evidence backing the need for increased staffing in our police department? What is it that BPD does with all our money? It most definitely isn’t the recovery of stolen property, as most who have had vehicles stolen would tell you. It also isn’t the prevention of theft or other crimes, as the crime rate statistics point to: the rate of crime in Berkeley has not reduced as Berkeley’s police budget has gone steadily up over the years. Yes, our community suffers from gun violence, but more police is not the answer. We should be funding programs to address the roots of crime—poverty and systemic economic hardship—not “community” police officers and increased police funding. Many of the RPSTF recommendations, ones that do not appear in the City Manager’s proposal, would do just that.

The reimagining process was intended to reduce the footprint of policing and to reduce racial disparities in policing. Almost two years after it began, we are looking at a road ahead that could very much be taking us backwards. It is not just the City Manager’s most recent proposal. The strategy of policing over compassionate alternatives also appears in ideas such as Taplin’s proposal for “ambassadors” in West Berkeley parks. City council previously approved ambassadors in downtown and Willard park, who have proven themselves to be pseudo police whose entire job consists of telling unhoused people to move along, and in some cases harassing them, rather than assisting them. Taplin’s proposal, costing an estimated $300,000 a year, would put ambassadors in Aquatic, San Pablo, and Strawberry Creek parks. The reimagining process is not simply about reducing police in Berkeley, but about investing in real solutions for community safety. Funding private security for our parks rather than affordable housing for Berkeley residents experiencing houselessness is worse than a band-aid solution. It will only increase the disparity of wealth in our city.

We have ideas in front of us that really work: a Specialized Care Unit, a Ceasefire program led by community groups to reduce gun violence, and many more. Let us reject fear tactics and more police, and instead establish alternatives that have already worked in other communities.

Fortunately, the Mayor and some on the council were dissatisfied with the City Manager’s recommendations, since they increased the BPD footprint instead of decreasing it as intended in the omnibus bill from July 2020. The Mayor will be presenting his reimagining recommendations on May 5 at another special meeting.


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