Opinion: Berkeley should support emergency preparedness and response by saying no to Urban Shield

Urban Shield’s racist, ‘warrior cop’ nature stands in clear contradiction with Berkeley’s values; pulling the city out should be a no-brainer based on that alone.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council will hold a long awaited vote on whether or not to participate in the notorious Urban Shield, a militarized SWAT training program and weapons expo that takes place annually in the Bay Area. The program involves 48 hours of war games trainings, and an expo featuring nearly 80 weapons vendors. Urban Shield operates on regional, national, and international levels, is funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and was implemented by Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern in 2007.

The program has increasingly gained attention and controversy for equipping local police with military-grade tactics and weapons behind a façade of “emergency preparedness.” For instance, in 2015 it made headlines when it was revealed that the most popular item at the expo was a t-shirt that read “Black Rifles Matter,” with an image of an M-16 assault rifle.

There is near consensus that Urban Shield’s racist, “warrior cop” nature stands in clear contradiction with Berkeley’s values; pulling the city out should be a no-brainer based on that alone. However, the question for some is this: are there alternative trainings that can offer true community based emergency preparedness?

The answer, simply put, is that Urban Shield itself is standing in the way of alternatives.

Compared to other emergency preparedness trainings, Urban Shield absorbs disproportionately huge amounts of funding. In 2015, five of the six million dollar pot of DHS funding went to Urban Shield, whereas zero dollars went to areas like “Emergency Planning and Community Preparedness” or “Medical and Public Health.” Urban Shield is sucking up money that could be going elsewhere.

In speaking with a representative of the Palo Alto Emergency Services Department, he explained that most departmental-run trainings are simply carried out through the departmental budget because they don’t require much funding, noting that employee time is usually the greatest cost for these trainings. He also mentioned that it is difficult for local jurisdictions to access the money that goes to Urban Shield because most of it is already allocated.

So in reality, local municipalities are using their slim departmental budgets to carry out the majority of trainings for their employees and community members throughout the year, while millions are dumped into a 48-hour program that most emergency service department representatives did not even mention as an integral part of their emergency readiness programs.

And now, because of community pushback, Urban Shield is attempting to rebrand itself. One way has been through efforts such as the “Green Command” program, which usurps already existing alternative programs such as the Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) and Personal Emergency Preparedness (PEPs). So not only are there existing trainings that can be expanded instead of Urban Shield, but the range of alternative trainings throughout the Bay Area risk being encompassed by a logic of militarization and fear-mongering.

And what about other options for emergency preparedness? According to its “About Us,” Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters (CARD) seems like the kind of alternative in Alameda County that Berkeley officials can really get behind: “Rather than hundreds of agencies each trying to maintain their own disaster preparedness programs, CARD unites, cultivates standards of preparedness and provides ongoing training and support to hundreds of agencies in the County. CARD does not use fear or threat-based messages to motivate action.”

After 26 years of doing this critical work, the nationally renowned and award winning CARD was forced to shut its doors in 2015 due to Urban Shield being the central training that Sheriff Ahern sought to prioritize.

Pulling out of Urban Shield is common sense, straightforward, and non-controversial, while continuing to participate will have severe implications on marginalized communities. Some cities have pulled out for practical reasons. For instance, Palo Alto withdrew from Urban Shield because of logistical difficulty, as losing the majority of their emergency workers for a full 48 hours was not feasible. Santa Rosa and Mountain View have also stopped participating, and these cities have not descended into some chaos spurred by lack of training, as Urban Shield proponents suggest will happen.

There are dozens of trainings that take place year-round outside of the 48 hours of Urban Shield. The alternatives are there, and without Urban Shield in the way, resources and capacity will be freed up to create more. The bottom line is that true preparedness and emergency response will not come from a model of neutralizing enemy combatants.

Berkeley is known for its creativity and strong community-oriented values. It would be a shame if it continued to participate in a deeply racist, violent, and highly militarized policing program rather than take the obvious step to stand with the communities it serves and lead the way for the rest of the country.

Ellen Brotsky is with Jewish Voice for Peace Bay Area, an organization with the Stop Urban Shield Coalition. She is a 29-year resident of Berkeley. Mohamed Shehk and Natasha Anis are with Critical Resistance. The organization's Oakland chapter is with the Stop Urban Shield Coalition.