Berkeley police are planning to purchase this van, with help from a federal grant. They say the vehicle will help keep officers and the public safe. Photo: BPD

In a 7-1 vote Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council approved plans presented by the police chief to buy a bulletproof van it says will keep officers and community members safer when responding to calls with armed individuals.

The item was supposed to be on the consent calendar — part of a package of noncontroversial items approved in a single vote without discussion — but new West Berkeley Councilwoman Cheryl Davila moved it to the action calendar at the beginning of the meeting.

When asked why she had done so, Davila said she had a problem with the federal money police would use to help buy the vehicle.

“I didn’t really have a question,” she told Mayor Jesse Arreguín. “I have an issue with Urban Shield and UASI money being used for this purpose,” she said, though she did not elaborate.

Dozens of members of the public lined up to agree with Davila and urge the city not to use the federal grant money, from the Department of Homeland Security, to buy the van. They also took issue with the city’s need to pony up $80,000 of its own money, taken from a fund comprised of seized assets from narcotics busts, to help pay for the van.

It was Councilman Kriss Worthington who tried to bring some historical perspective to the discussion, reminding attendees that people had said previously they wanted the city to stop borrowing more militaristic-looking armored vehicles from neighboring law enforcement agencies. 

“This was a compromise that we negotiated a while ago, and it’s not the giant thing that people have complained about generally,” he said.

Interim Berkeley Police Chief Andy Greenwood said the reinforced panel van had internal panels, not visible from the outside, and thickened glass or plexiglass to ensure that bullets could not enter it. He said it would be used when people are reported to be armed, or in active shooter situations where police might have to rescue hostages.

Greenwood said the department went to great lengths to find an appropriate vehicle that would be “in line with our community’s values and standards.”

Numerous council members clarified that the primary purpose of the vehicle would be to keep people safe, and that it would not include mounts for weapons or serve any offensive purpose.

Police would be able to stop borrowing armored vehicles from other agencies if they can buy a bulletproof panel van, officials said last week. Photo: David Yee

Community members who spoke said they would prefer that the city use the $80,000 for job training or other programs for youth, or to help feed and house the city’s homeless.

“Retrain our boys so they won’t have to have Armageddon,” one woman told council. “The money should be used to retrain our kids.”

Said another: “It is just a police department. You need to stop outfitting it like an army. It should not have military-grade weapons or tactics or training because it’s a civilian police department.”

Mike Lee, former mayoral candidate and homeless activist said the city should have a “less militarized” police department.

“I don’t see a demonstrated need for this,” he told council.

Daniel Borgström of Veterans for Peace, urged council not to be confused by any “fancy names” being used for the vehicle, such as “a van.”

“A tank is a tank. It’s a combat vehicle,” he said, as a picture of a white van similar to what the city plans to purchase was displayed on a large screen in council chambers. “Please do not get that tank.”

Though the vast majority of speakers said they were against the purchase, several said it seemed preferable to past alternatives or that they hadn’t made up their minds.

“It looks less threatening to me than a Google bus,” Berkeley historian Steve Finacom told council. “I’m not sure how I would vote.”

Andrea Prichett, co-founder of Berkeley Copwatch and new appointee to the city’s Police Review Commission, said the city should give less money to police and spend more on mental health services because 35% of the department’s calls involve reports of individuals with mental health issues. She and others pleaded with the city not to do any business with the Department of Homeland Security.

The Berkeley City Council, December 2016. Photo: Emilie Raguso

In response to community questions, Greenwood said asset forfeiture money can only be used for specific purposes, which do not include the type of programs some community members said they would like to see. Council ultimately did ask Greenwood to provide more information in the future about the asset forfeiture program to explain how it works.

For most members of the City Council, the van purchase appeared to be a no-brainer.

Councilman Ben Bartlett said he saw the van as “a more innocuous mode of protection” than prior armored vehicles, and that officers should expect their lives to be protected if they are to risk them to protect the community. And Councilwoman Susan Wengraf described the van as a “very good investment” for the city.

Worthington said he saw the van as a move toward a friendlier-looking BPD, and described the vehicle as “pretty much a regular van.”

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstandings about this subject,” he told those in attendance.

Commissioner Sophie Hahn said she’d like police to come back to council with protocols about when and how the department would use the van, though she declined to make that request part of the motion on the floor.

Davila said she too was concerned about the protocols, and that the issue remained for her to be about “the militarization versus the civilization” of BPD.

In response to questions about whether the city would be obligated to lend out the van to Homeland Security under the requirements of the grant, city officials said they did not see that as a likely scenario.

Greenwood said he believes strongly that the department’s policies, tactics and equipment can stand up to a high level of scrutiny and review from the public.

“I fully expect to be held accountable for this van’s use and appearance in every single incident that happens,” he said. “I fully expect that when we use it, people would ask, ‘What’s that? What’s going on? Why are you using it?’ And that we would be able to answer in a way that satisfies the community.”

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Crime in Berkeley: 9 robberies in 2 days, video of restaurant robbery, armored van grant (05.06.16)
Op-ed: Militarization of Berkeley police doesn’t help community safety (09.04.15)
Op-ed: Give Berkeley police tools they need to do the job (09.01.15)
Berkeley police defend tactics after laundromat robbery (08.03.15)
Robber with ‘silver teeth’ evades Berkeley police (07.27.15)
The lowdown: Council on street paving, gas pump labels, bulletproof van, more (09.18.14)
Berkeley Police team wins local Urban Shield contest (09.08.13)
University, Berkeley, Albany reject armored vehicle (07.05.12)
City Council approves pools measure, debates streets (06.27.12)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...