The BPD Special Response Team during an Urban Shield scenario in 2012. Photo: San Leandro Privacy

City officials voted preliminarily this week to keep Berkeley police out of this year’s Urban Shield tactical exercises despite protests from the city manager’s office, the police and fire chiefs, some community members and police staff.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín voted Monday afternoon with Councilwomen Kate Harrison and Cheryl Davila to allow firefighters, and others in the city, to take part in Urban Shield’s disaster preparedness and fire safety exercises — but said police officers must sit 2018 out because the event’s tactical exercises and vendor show have been too controversial and raised too many red flags.

“What’s not acceptable is the involvement of vendors with their own technologies,” Harrison said. “What’s not acceptable is the involvement of foreign teams. What’s not acceptable is using terrorist examples that are not common in the United States.”

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf was the lone member of the four-person panel — the Ad-Hoc Subcommittee on NCRIC and Urban Shield — who said Berkeley police should be allowed to join in the exercise this year, as they have for the past decade.

“When you get this training, you build an immunity to horrific situations so that you can respond very quickly without thinking,” said Wengraf, who described herself as “vehemently opposed” to the ad-hoc group’s vote. “We need our first responders to be able to build up that immunity.”

The subcommittee has been meeting for almost a year to learn about the Urban Shield program and decide what role Berkeley should play in it. The group’s recommendation is now set to go to the full Berkeley City Council for a vote in late July. Arreguín told Wengraf she could write a “minority report” for colleagues to lay out the reasons for her dissenting vote.

Urban Shield, which is run by the Alameda County sheriff’s office, touts itself as “the nation’s best first responder training program.” It has drawn steep criticism from Bay Area activists who say it contributes too much to the militarization of local police, puts officers at odds with communities of color, and too often places Muslims in the role of terrorist. The event’s vendor show came under scrutiny in 2015 when a photo surfaced of a T-shirt for sale there that said “Black Rifles Matter.” And, last year, local activists decried the presence at the show of the Oath Keepers, a group described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups” in the nation.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted in March to require big changes to the program should it wish to continue to receive funding through the county after 2018. What form the changes might take, however, remains an open question. Mayor Arreguín said Berkeley aims to help shape that process. Wengraf said she’s concerned, however, that if Berkeley police are forbidden to take part, the city will lose an important seat at the table.

The center of the Urban Shield program is an annual series of rigorous tactical exercises that run all over the region for 48 hours straight. Some scenarios are based on actual incidents, such as the Boston Marathon bombing or the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. The focus is on hostage rescue and active-shooter drills within a range of contexts, and agencies compete to see who handles them best. In 2013, the Berkeley Police Department Special Response Team took first place in the competition, beating out more than 30 other national and international agencies.

City manager’s office: “We do face threats here”

During Monday’s meeting, Deputy City Manager Jovan Grogan described Urban Shield as “the best tactical training” available to BPD, and “the best training that we have now that partners with the agencies that, frankly, will help us respond to a significant event in the city of Berkeley. That’s our neighboring municipalities and the county.”

Grogan said the city should continue to participate in Urban Shield, and work to change the program from within, rather than pulling out police while there is no comparable alternative.

“We do face threats here,” he said. “We face significant threats, be they school shootings, be they terrorist attacks, be they just active-shooter events that … happen in our community every year. And to pull the police department out of training without something immediate in its place, I don’t know that that’s the right decision.”

Mayor Arreguín said he might not have supported the move to keep BPD from Urban Shield if the department’s Special Response Team (SRT) didn’t have access to other training throughout the year.

But police told him repeatedly that the other training is not comparable, because it is focused on individual skills and patrol teams — not BPD’s tactical team itself. SRT, which many other agencies call the “SWAT” team, handles calls involving armed and barricaded subjects, and other critical incidents. Urban Shield is the only time SRT has a chance to run through robust exercises together to practice how to respond, police said.

“If you ask my opinion there is nothing that replaces Urban Shield,” Sgt. Spencer Fomby, a BPD sergeant who helps run SRT and has been recognized as a national expert in tactical training, told the subcommittee Monday. He challenged the position that Urban Shield has had a detrimental impact on the department. Fomby said SRT has taken part in the exercise for 10 years and had no negative outcomes — no police shootings — during that time.

BPD’s last officer-involved shooting was in 2012. The last shooting involving the Special Response Team, however, was in 2002.

In a letter to the subcommittee in May, Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood said the Urban Shield scenarios offer “tremendous value” to the department. He told officials Monday that, given SRT’s record, it would be difficult to tell his officers that they can’t go: “When you have a highly functioning team and the outcomes are positive, the challenge becomes: How to relay back that we’re not going to be allowed to participate?”

Wengraf said she was worried that the decision would make it even harder for BPD to attract new applicants and retain the officers it has. The department has been in a staffing crisis, with no signs of improvement. She said the city already doesn’t give officers all the tools they need to stay safe, and that taking away the exercise will have a similar effect.

“We’re telling them, ‘Oh, in Berkeley you can come be in our police department but, no, you’re not going to be able to participate in Urban Shield, the council doesn’t want you going to the vendor show, blah blah blah,’” she said, pausing. “That’s ridiculous.”

Greenwood said his department’s evaluators and subject matter experts, who have helped develop aspects of the Urban Shield program in the past, should be allowed to continue to do that work — especially after Harrison pointed out that Berkeley’s expertise in de-escalation techniques is what she’d like to see more of in the program.

But Harrison, Arreguín and Davila held their position — no Urban Shield for BPD in 2018 — despite repeated attempts by Wengraf to get them to allow SRT members to play some role.

Arreguín said he’d like to see the city come up with its own set of scenarios for BPD.

“Mr. Mayor, I can’t,” Chief Greenwood replied. “It’s not just the money. I’m sorry, and I appreciate the spirit of it, but there’s not a way that we’re going to create a whole bunch of tactical training scenarios to put our SWAT team through. I don’t have the resources or the money.”

Fire Chief Dave Brannigan told officials it’s simply not realistic to take that approach because of how much work, time and money it would take — even on a much smaller scale than the one offered at Urban Shield. He said, for example, BFD has been working with PG&E for 3-4 months just to create a single scenario for 30 people related to a natural gas pipeline that runs through downtown.

“To say that it’s just money… is not really accurate,” Brannigan said.

Harrison: Urban Shield is “not reflective of what our community needs”

Councilwoman Davila said she would like the city to end its participation in the exercise entirely, and not take part in the disaster, fire safety or CERT elements of Urban Shield either.

“I’m wondering why we can’t just pull out, period, for this year?” she said. “I mean, what difference does it make? It’s one year. I mean, they can do what they’re going to do and get some other training.”

Harrison said she felt the other public safety elements were “really valuable,” and should definitely be continued. Arreguín and Wengraf concurred.

“They’re still going to be participating with all the bad players and armies,” Davila said, pushing back.

“No, they’re not,” the mayor told her. “Those are not the scenarios that have created the most concern.”

(The fire safety and disaster preparedness exercises are separate from the 48-hour tactical training competition.)

Davila said she was also concerned about Urban Shield’s potential impact on racial disparities in policing.

“I don’t know what the correlation is, but it seems like it could be part of it,” she said. “And the fact that there’s all these different countries participating — that we don’t agree with how they handle themselves in their countries — is a big problem. I mean, that’s a direct consequence of our participation, I feel.”

Councilwoman Harrison said she believes Berkeley will be able to have a say in what the program will eventually look like — whether or not BPD is involved in 2018. That’s because the policy level discussions are taking part separately from the program planning by the sheriff’s office.

Harrison also said the presence last year of the Oath Keepers at Urban Shield is something she is “never going to get over.”

“I just think the militaristic approach to these exercises, the kinds of terrorism that they posit, which are not so much about our local things … are not reflective of what our community needs,” she said. “I realize us pulling out is somewhat symbolic…. I understand that. But where do we start? Where do we start saying no to this? I just feel so strongly about this, I can’t even tell you.”

Reached after the meeting, Sgt. Chris Stines of the Berkeley Police Association said Wengraf’s concerns about how the vote might affect staffing and morale were spot on. Stines said BPD officers carry a range of medical supplies with them — and have saved lives in Berkeley as a result — because of the advanced first aid training and traumatic injury care officers have gotten over the years at Urban Shield. And the program allows BPD to build important relationships with other local first responders that would not happen otherwise, he said.

“If the City Council majority is looking for a pathway to decimate the police department, I give them an A+,” he said. “If they somehow think they are protecting this community from crime, the threats of active shooters, and the regional impacts of natural disasters, I give them an F.”

The full Berkeley City Council vote on Urban Shield participation is scheduled for July 24.

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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...