Police said they used training from Urban Shield after a shooting in South Berkeley on June 13, 2018. Photo: BPD

“I’m not here to break laws,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said Monday during a subcommittee discussion on whether the city should let its police officers take part in Urban Shield tactical exercises later this year.

The large-scale event, run annually by the Alameda County sheriff’s office, has drawn vocal protest from activists who have worked to shut the program down. Earlier this month, a Berkeley City Council subcommittee voted 3-1 to stop Berkeley police from taking part in tactical drills at Urban Shield in 2018. That recommendation was set to go to the full council in July for a final decision. But that’s no longer the case.

During Monday’s meeting, Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she had come to believe the June 4 subcommittee vote — which she had opposed — might actually violate the city charter and municipal code. Councilwomen Kate Harrison and Cheryl Davila said they were skeptical of Wengraf’s position, and expressed anger about the lateness of her announcement, which came toward the end of a lengthy meeting. They walked out together in protest several minutes before the meeting was to adjourn. The mayor, however, said he saw merit in Wengraf’s concern.

“While I did vote for the motion last meeting, I’m troubled by the potential that an action we took could be in violation of the city charter or municipal code,” Arreguín said, as he pulled his support for the earlier vote. “As much as I have serious concern about Urban Shield, I don’t want to do something that’s illegal, that’s my concern. I mean, I don’t feel like that’s my role. I don’t think I took an oath to do that.”

For the past decade, BPD has sent its Special Response Team — what other cities call SWAT — to take part in 48 hours of rigorous back-to-back tactical scenarios at Urban Shield. But a growing Bay Area activist movement has been working to end the event due to what it says are controversial elements that increase the militarization of local police agencies, and lack racial sensitivity, among other complaints. Last year in June, the Berkeley City Council voted to create a four-person subcommittee to evaluate the program and potential alternatives.

Meanwhile, the sheriff’s office has been working to reconfigure the Urban Shield program in the face of continuing protests, which culminated earlier this year in a vote by the county Board of Supervisors to end financial support of the program in its current form. Berkeley has said it wants to play a role in shaping what Urban Shield may look like in the future.

To that end, the subcommittee agreed Monday on a dozen or so suggestions for the future, and the meeting had moved along smoothly for about 2.5 hours. Each member of the four-person panel added recommendations to a common wishlist, including changes the sheriff’s office has already agreed to make. When the vote came, however, Davila abstained without explanation while the others voted in favor of putting the recommendations forward to the full City Council.

The tone of the meeting took a sharp twist during the final agenda item, a review of the June 4 vote and related recommendations for council. The agenda item included a 37-page draft report on Urban Shield by Councilwoman Harrison that Wengraf described as “extremely biased” and unsolicited.

“I didn’t know this report was being written because the subcommittee never had a discussion to that effect,” Wengraf said. “So I was actually quite shocked to find a very long and detailed report in my packet.”

Wengraf said she didn’t think the write-up — which she called “an extensive report on why Urban Shield is bad” — was what council had asked for when it voted to create the subcommittee: “I think it’s more dictated by political ideology than by an assessment of the benefits of the training,” she added.

Harrison, who said she worked on the report with the mayor’s office, said it was not biased, and argued that it included “a lot of factual evidence” about the program’s history, activities and funding. She said it didn’t matter whether the subcommittee approved the report or not, because she would bring it to council herself if she had to: “This report will be in the record,” she promised.

The mayor said the report should make it clear that “there are no established negative outcomes for our police department participating in the [Urban Shield] program.”

But before council members could discuss the details of the report much further, Wengraf handed out a section of the city charter, and told her fellow subcommittee members she had become concerned about the legality of the June 4 vote — because it’s the city manager who has authority over city employees and their training, according to the city charter and municipal code. Council’s job is to set policy, she said.

Councilwoman Harrison disagreed with the assessment, and said policymaking includes “setting the broad parameters of how the city is to operate” — which can include constraints on people’s work, she said.

“Were we to have a training where slaves were serving food, we would certainly be within our rights to say, ‘We’re not participating in that training, that violates our policy,'” Harrison said. Harrison initially tried to block further discussion, arguing that the item was not on the agenda. She said she was offended Wengraf had brought up the issue so late.

Arreguín said the topic was part of the discussion of final recommendations and the June 4 vote, the subject at hand. Harrison was not pleased. She objected to Wengraf’s handout, and said the information should have been shared sooner.

“Even though I knew it would be controversial, I was polite enough to submit the report in advance,” she said, of her draft. “I was not required to do that. I think that’s what you do with your colleagues. I don’t think you hand this to your colleagues on the dais. So I’m objecting to it on that basis.”

Davila also was upset, and said the legality question was “some BS, if I ever heard it.”

“I’m just, like, blown away by this actually,” she said, of the idea that the earlier vote was not legal. “Everybody knew what we were doing since last June. So why is this even an issue right now? And why didn’t this come up a year ago? I mean, that’s ridiculous to me. Why waste our time?”

The Ad-Hoc Subcommittee on NCRIC and Urban Shield on June 18. Photo: Christine Schwartz

Wengraf said the agreed-upon suggestions from the subcommittee would be important and meaningful to share with the sheriff’s office, and that it was only after the prior meeting’s vote that the legality issue arose.

“We took a vote on something that’s operational. Not policy,” Wengraf said. “It’s in response to the vote you took which I realized later may be inappropriate. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know. But I think it might be.”

Harrison said she found it “odd” and “challenging” that “people that sit on the body want to undercut” the subcommittee’s authority. She said she absolutely saw the decision to take BPD out of Urban Shield as within council’s purview. And she said she would not give up.

“If forced, I will find a lawyer to make that point,” she said. “I think this is an extremely irregular thing to bring up in this way.”

Harrison said she disagreed with the mayor’s position that “there’s no proof that there’s harm from these SWAT teams.” And she said Berkeley police need to do better, given a recent report on racial disparities in policing, and issues that arose during Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

The mayor clarified that the legality issue had been raised by city staff right after the June 4 vote. And he said he, too, had been frustrated to learn of it. But he said it raised a number of questions for him. He asked the city manager whether, in addition to the charter and municipal code issues, the negotiated police contract might also limit changes officials are allowed to make related to staff.

City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley at the Berkeley City Council meeting in 2016 (file photo). Photo: Emilie Raguso

City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said the police contract would indeed trigger a “meet and confer” process with the union should council members vote on anything related to training — which is supposed to be under the city manager’s authority.

Mayor Arreguín said he has been on council for 10 years and had “never known” training to be up to council. He then announced he could no longer support the June 4 vote. His “no” vote changed the tally to 2-2, meaning the subcommittee cannot urge council to keep BPD out of Urban Shield in 2018.

“I do not want my vote attached to that motion. I don’t want to be associated with an action that could be potentially illegal and that is outside of our legislative authority,” he said. “I want to shape Urban Shield. But I don’t want to do something that is going to put the city at legal risk and council at legal risk.”

“I haven’t seen a legal opinion that says that,” Harrison countered. “I see nothing before us. You’re making this assertion based on comments made at the last minute.”

Harrison then announced she would have to leave for a personal matter “in six minutes” — the meeting had run late. But she left about a minute later after making some final remarks to the mayor.

“I think we should not be doing this at this moment,” she said. “I am stunned that you are going to withdraw your vote at a moment like this.”

Davila, already standing, said she was appalled at the turn of events, and would also leave.

“If this is true, and the city attorney hasn’t weighed in, that’s ridiculous to me,” she said. “I mean, what’s she doing? If this was really true then why didn’t she freaking send something to be read at this meeting today?”

Both women walked out of the room.

From right: Wengraf and Arreguín alone on the dais after the two other subcommittee members walked out. Image: Still from Facebook Live video (below)

The city manager told Arreguín and Wengraf the prior remarks had been “very disrespectful” to the city attorney, and that no one had ever formally requested a legal opinion on the subject. Despite that, she said, the legality issue — as well as questions about the scope of council decisions — had been raised with officials before.

“While a lot of this may be fresh and new to many, this is not a new comment,” Williams-Ridley said. “My desk, my office, has repeatedly stated both formally and behind scenes that I believe there is an absolute erosion of the city manager responsibilities before my time and during my time.”

She continued: “I just want to be very clear about that. This isn’t new. We’ve been talking about Urban Shield for a long time. And, whether it’s been in a formal setting or behind the scenes in talking with council members and explaining the position of this city manager’s office and the position of the police department, it’s been very clear: That we believe we should have a voice and a seat in the Urban Shield program to actually address and dictate the type of change that we want to see. Pulling us out of that role, I think, is detrimental.”

The mayor said, even without the June 4 police vote, the new recommendation list for how to shape Urban Shield would still be a significant step forward: “The focus is on the sheriff and on Alameda County. Because they’re the ones that are deciding, running and funding this program.”

Toward the beginning of the meeting, Wengraf had tried to convince the group to agree to continue to meet while it worked on issues still under discussion. But the other members of the body declined. Monday was the final session for the Ad-Hoc Subcommittee on NCRIC and Urban Shield. The full council is slated to discuss Urban Shield on July 24. The agenda has not been posted.

Berkeleyside did not attend Monday’s meeting, but reviewed meeting video and audio this week. A video of the meeting appears below.

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...