Berkeley police staffing levels have reached a crisis point, and the entire traffic bureau along with some investigative positions may be on the chopping block in early 2018, according to reports this week from BPD.
The department already suspended its bicycle patrols this fall, and disbanded its Drug Task Force in recent years. Cuts in the Community Services Bureau and the suspension of the Special Investigations Bureau are also coming, officers have said.
Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood told the Police Review Commission on Wednesday that staffing is down to 160 officers by his calculations. Six of the 160 are on injury leave, and others are still in probationary training, which limits resources on patrol and in other areas even more. Greenwood said he had been making the rounds at the department this week to discuss what’s to come.
“We’re descending to a critical period and it has gotten worse rather than better,” Greenwood told the PRC as part of his regular report to the advisory body. “We have lost so many officers that we’re going to have to rethink a bit of how we do business.”
When Greenwood was thrust into the chief’s role last year following the abrupt departure of his predecessor, he said staffing would be among his top priorities. The department is now authorized to hire 181 officers, the result of lobbying city leaders to get more money and positions authorized. But the agency has continued to shrink. Greenwood said at least 24 officers have left, or plan to leave, the department this year, while only 17 have been hired. That reflects department trends in recent years with people leaving in the double-digits, due to retirement or jobs elsewhere, and hiring unable to keep pace.
“One of the things that we’re seeing now that we never used to see is people going to other agencies,” Greenwood told the PRC. He said the department may soon need to make the tough choice to shutter units “that are long-time high-value providers for our community” so that central services such as patrol and investigations can function.
BPD’s investigative arm has already been suffering, with 20% to 25% of its positions currently being held open, Greenwood said.
The traffic unit, which has a sergeant and four motorcycle officers, is likely to shutter this coming year. The unit handles enforcement, education and training, as well as investigations into fatal crashes and other collisions.
“We’re going to have to figure out how we retain our ability to handle some of the most critical aspects of that while having them work on patrol,” he said. And one or more area coordinators from the Community Services Bureau may be sent back to patrol. “There are no other areas for us to pull people from.”
Greenwood has presented the cuts publicly as a potentiality that’s still being considered. Officers have told Berkeleyside that, inside BPD, the cuts have been described as a done deal. The effect on morale has not been good.
The staffing shortage has been a national problem in recent years, with law enforcement drawing fewer applicants than it once did. That’s at least in part due to the increasing scrutiny and mounting criticism of the career, and vocal demands for significant reforms.
Greenwood said BPD officers are now looking elsewhere because other agencies are taking steps to recruit more aggressively and offer more competitive hiring packages. Greenwood told the PRC the city needs to think hard about how it can retain its officers in the face of those offers from outside — particularly because filling vacant positions with qualified applicants has become increasingly difficult.
“The emphasis has to be on how we retain the people we have, how we make our staff know that they are supported and valued,” he told the PRC. In the meantime, he added, he’ll be working to come up with a plan about how to rebuild. He said the PRC might want to put a discussion about staffing on the agenda for January or February so there can be a more robust conversation about it.
BPA asks “Where’s my Berkeley Cop?”
As it happened, the Berkeley Police Association (BPA), which represents BPD officers, launched its own campaign this week to raise awareness about the staffing problem. Dubbed “Where’s my Berkeley Cop?” the campaign features a new webpage that describes the staffing shortage and asks community members to speak up politically if they are concerned. (The campaign includes a paid advertisement on the Berkeleyside homepage.)
The association says officer numbers have dropped steadily since 2010 while the city’s population has continued to increase, leading to “slower response times and serious consequences for public safety.” The group, currently involved in contract negotiations with the city, says it may not be long before officer numbers come in below 140. Many still on staff recall when ranks reached 215 back in the 90s. Sure, crime reports were higher, too. But officers often cite that figure when discussing just how bad they feel the crunch has gotten.
“Just this year, twenty six officers have left the department for other opportunities and more are on their way out,” according to the website. “How can we stop the current exodus of officers who are leaving Berkeley for other agencies and opportunities?”
On the website, the association puts the blame for the rush of departures squarely on the Berkeley City Council and what is described as its lack of support for specialized units in the department. BPD officers have also made no secret of the fact that they resent how city policy and politics limit their access to tools and opportunities that are standard in many surrounding agencies.
“BPD is no longer competitive in hiring. Most neighboring departments offer incentives to prospective officers, including opportunities to work in specialized investigative units, such as a drug or gang task force. They offer the opportunity to work as a canine officer, a bicycle officer or as a traffic officer. They have the industry standard tools such as in dash cameras, body cameras and tasers. And they also offer hiring bonuses,” BPA writes on the website. “BPD offers NONE of those.”
The association warns that the city will have to decrease its hiring standards if something isn’t done. Sgt. Emily Murphy, acting association president, said the possibility of forced overtime, and its impacts on childcare, commutes, officer safety and morale, is another real worry.
“Dedicated officers who already invested in, and planned on, making a career at Berkeley PD are now forced to make hard decisions: to stay when the future is uncertain as far as career advancement and compensation — or look elsewhere,” she said. “Officers make career decisions just like everyone else: They consider the welfare of their families.”
Chief Greenwood said he had not been aware of the website or seen it before Friday. But he said he is concerned about the “deepening staffing crisis” underway at BPD, which includes longstanding staffing shortages in the dispatch center, and said wages and benefits will be key if the city hopes to keep its officers amid what’s become a “competitive battle.”
“It’s an absolute testament to the quality of our people that they are sought out by other agencies,” he told Berkeleyside by email. “Berkeley officers perform at an extraordinarily high level of professionalism, and handle a wide variety of calls and investigations.”
Greenwood confirmed plans are in the works to create a path forward, and said details will be shared with the community at the appropriate time.
Wednesday night, at the PRC meeting, commissioners told the chief they look forward to learning more soon. Commissioner Terry Roberts said the future is looking somewhat bleak, particularly if the numbers continue to drop.
“There’s got to be some kind of strategy to shore them up,” he told the chief. Then he paused, adding: “I’m not sure what that is.”