Available Berkeley police staffing is down to 135 officers, and 80% of the department is investigating whether to leave, the leader of the Berkeley Police Association told a small group of community members Monday night.
It was the latest report to the public on what authorities have described as a crisis in staffing at the Berkeley Police Department. The size of the force is at a historic low, as violent crime and the city’s population have been on the rise in recent years, said Police Sgt. Christian Stines. Stines runs the union that represents Berkeley police officers, who have been in contract negotiations with the city since last year. Progress in those talks has been limited.
Annual calls for service to BPD have risen steadily over the past five years, increasing about 10% since 2012, according to department data. Meanwhile, officers have left the department for other agencies in increasing numbers. Veteran officers who have left, losing seniority and taking pay cuts in many cases, have told Berkeleyside they wanted to work at agencies where they had more opportunities for special assignments, more tools and more community support. (A deeper look at their stories is forthcoming.)
The police association has said as much in an outreach campaign launched late last year to try to let the public know about some of the pressures officers are facing. Critics have questioned the accuracy of the campaign and said it’s more a PR push than facts. But there’s no denying that officers are leaving BPD for other agencies, or choosing to retire sooner than they might have otherwise, because of challenges in Berkeley, both within the department and without.
Police reformers have questioned, too, whether the smaller force is actually a problem, and said it makes sense for Berkeley to look into “civilianizing” a number of roles officers have traditionally played. They note that crime trends overall in recent decades have been on the decline, and say Berkeley should spend less money on policing and more on grassroots solutions for mental health and homeless services, as well as disaster preparedness.
Monday night, however, most of the 16 or so community members who attended the meeting at BPD said they are worried about staffing levels and want to do what they can to increase community awareness about it. In particular, they said they are concerned to hear how many Berkeley officers have considered leaving.
Stines said he surveyed association members in recent months and asked how many had taken a concrete step to leave BPD, such as putting in an application or filing an interest card at another agency. About 80% of respondents said they had. Of those, more than 80% said they would be likely to leave BPD if offered a job elsewhere, he said. (Berkeleyside has not seen the raw survey data.)
“We have a gigantic retention problem,” Stines told members of the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee, which meets monthly at BPD to discuss pressing public-safety matters with officers and other guest speakers. The retention issue is in addition to recruitment challenges being seen around the nation as fewer and fewer people want to become police officers, he added.
“This is, in fact, a crisis,” he said.
The department has the budget to hire 181 officers. Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood has put the number of existing sworn staff at 157. But Stines and other officers said Monday night that, when you take into account injuries, medical leave, military leave, and officers in the academy or who are still in field training, the true number of actual available bodies is in the 130s. Greenwood has said, as a result, he may soon have to cut units and positions outside patrol to make sure patrol beats are filled.
Many of the calls BPD handles are also time- and resource-consuming due to Berkeley’s demographics, officers say. Police have said previously that mental health calls take up a huge proportion of their time. Lt. Kevin Schofield said Monday that calls relating to homelessness also demand a significant amount of patrol resources.
Schofield oversees the Community Services Bureau, which includes four officers who handle community and neighborhood concerns. He estimated Monday that 75% of their day-to-day work involves homelessness in some capacity.
Still, Berkeley PD prides itself on its level of service, which it says the community has come to expect. Officers say they respond to any call where a community member asks to meet in person. That includes many calls other departments handle through online reporting or resources other than patrol: identity theft, falls on city property, auto collisions without injuries, unverified alarm calls, and hit-and-run incidents where there’s no suspect information. An officer also responds anytime the department gets a wireless 911 hangup to see if there’s any indication of trouble. (And that’s true even though the address comes in only as a radius, which may be quite large, around the cell tower location pinged at the time of the call.)
The department is currently looking at all of that, Schofield said, and may expand the type of reports that can be made online. Currently, they include theft and auto burglary, vandalism, ID theft and harassing phone calls.
“What can we add to that list?” Schofield said, adding that a number of civil matters, including crashes that have no injuries, are under consideration.
Two people, Police Review Commissioner and Berkeley Copwatch co-founder Andrea Prichett and a UC Berkeley student who attended Monday’s meeting with her, took issue with some of the information presented and said it’s time for a new approach. They said more police are not the answer Berkeley needs.
Prichett said she’d like to see a performance audit done in the department to assess how officers are spending their time. She said she’d like counselors, rather than police, to respond to mental health calls, for example, “to supplement some of the demand for labor.”
Prichett said it’s a “waste of time” for officers to respond to social service calls, “with their particular skill set and their particular training.” She described the performance analysis as a “reasonable proposition” that could allow for better-informed staffing choices in the future, and might free up officers for details such a bike patrol, that many have said they miss.
The young woman who was with Prichett, who identified herself as a member of the Berkeley Student Cooperative, took issue with the “Where’s my Berkeley Cop” website recently created by the union — and said it should not be “trying to frame police in a social service role… as if Berkeley police ever had an effective solution for mental health crises.” She brought up the death of Kayla Moore in police custody in 2013 as one example. She said she wants to see more de-escalation training and more of a community approach to social needs.
Stines said, in response to the Prichett proposal, he is all in favor of good data. But he also noted there have been numerous recent analyses — including an “abundance of audits” under former Chief Michael Meehan — that haven’t helped address what he sees as the critical issues: that too many officers are leaving BPD for other law enforcement jobs. Stines said there’s already awareness of how officers spend their time, and a keen understanding of the needs of the community, and that his priority now is getting staffing numbers up to full strength. That process is likely to take years, he added.
“Our police department right now is functioning like a gunshot victim,” Stines said. “We need to put a tourniquet on the bleeding. We need to stop the bleeding.”
Most of the community members in the room said they value the work of BPD officers and want to find ways to support them — by speaking with local officials or getting active in other ways: spreading the word in neighborhood groups or writing opinion pieces online. One suggested a petition drive at BART stations to collect signatures of support. Another said perhaps a table at local markets would help spread the word. The group also said it might draft a letter to the Berkeley City Council to urge the body to take the issue seriously.
Jim Smith, a longtime neighborhood activist in Berkeley who has sometimes been the lone voice at city meetings in support of BPD, said he has sent cookies to the department to let officers know they’re appreciated.
Stines said, cookies aside, he would be happy if people didn’t do things like stick huge wads of gum onto his car, which happened recently.
“Little things like that tear down officer morale,” he said. “And I think little things are going to build us back up.”
Some in the room said they were particularly worried about the lack of civility at council meetings — particularly ones that relate to police matters — and that people who support cops are afraid to share those views publicly because they have been harassed and threatened at meetings when they’ve tried.
Berkeley resident Alex Sharenko said he’s been at meetings where the tone has become “incredibly hostile” when people try to express support for law enforcement in Berkeley. But he said there’s a much bigger dynamic at play: that too many voters lack the context and information needed to urge wise policy decisions at the level of local government.
“Elections have consequences, and we are living those consequences right now,” he said.