I followed our police as they participated in live Urban Shield scenarios. What I saw changed my mind.

Last year, I shadowed Berkeley Police Department’s eight-person Special Response Team (SRT, our equivalent to a SWAT team) through two live Urban Shield training scenarios. Going in, I was prepared to witness everything I’d heard about Urban Shield – overt militarization of our police through war games and weapons advertising, racial profiling and requirements to use extreme force, improbable and unrealistic scenarios, and more.

That wasn’t what I saw. Berkeley’s SRT was exceptional – they used Urban Shield as a training ground to practice the approaches we’ve asked them to use, from de-escalation techniques to reducing use of force. I walked away convinced that our SRT uses the training opportunities provided through Urban Shield responsibly, and that the practice they receive in the scenarios can, will, and does save lives in our community.

Berkeley City Council may decide to prohibit our SRT from participating in these trainings at a special Council meeting Monday, July 23. Doing so would be a mistake.

Urban Shield is a three-day event, organized annually for first responders in the Bay Area, at no cost to participating cities. It includes a Friday conference and 48 hours of continuous training, from 5am Saturday to 5am Monday. Participating teams – like Berkeley’s SRT – go through over 30 training scenarios over the 48-hour period held at locations all over the Bay Area, with at most 4 hours of sleep.

These training scenarios run the gamut, from running obstacle courses, to practicing hostage negotiations, to responding to mass shootings. They also take place in an incredible diversity of environments – not just schools and offices, but also on train cars, boats, and even SFO’s training airplane. Participating teams practice implementing the policies and approaches their City Councils have directed them to use. Through the diversity of scenarios and range of locations, Urban Shield prepares our first responders to handle crises in any place, of any form, at any time, the way we as a community want them to be handled.

Here’s one of the scenarios I followed the BPD team through, after they had already been training for over 30 hours straight: a man with a history of domestic violence had broken into a childcare facility and taken his infant son hostage in a domestic dispute. (The infant was a mannequin, the man was a volunteer). The man was armed with a knife and reported to have an accomplice, who may or may not be armed; it was believed that all other civilians had been evacuated. BPD’s primary objective was to rescue the infant.

There was no military-grade equipment for use within the scenario. There weren’t even any actual firearms – instead, the SRT was outfitted for, essentially, laser tag. The “guns” were designed to look, feel, weigh, and even sound like the standard issue guns that BPD already has for use in a real setting, but the infrared beams they fired were no more dangerous than your TV remote.

After they had been briefed on the scenario, one of the first questions the SRT leader asked was: “Do we have less-than-lethal?”

Preferring the use of rubber bullets over live ammunition is exactly the type of harm-avoidant approach we want our SRT to take – and it’s that type of approach that has led to them successfully de-escalating every SWAT call in the past 17 years. That’s the approach that has resulted in zero officer-involved shootings, from the team that responds to the most dangerous calls, in nearly two decades.

But our SRT hasn’t had the same members for the past 17 years – in fact, our current SRT is our youngest and least experienced SRT ever, due to our ongoing recruitment challenges and staffing shortages. That’s one of the reasons it’s critical we continue sending them to these regional training exercises, to ensure our new officers are able to practice de-escalation in stressful situations before someone’s life is actually on the line.

The scenario organizer approved BPD’s request that their laser-tag guns fire imaginary rubber bullets, and after some further Q&A, BPD headed out to the site, which was an adjacent office building.

Once inside the maze-like building, they had to find the perpetrators and hostage. There was no rushing in – during the scenario, the 8-person team worked carefully and methodically to search every hallway, room, closet, and even a refrigerator as potential locations of other victims or hostages, all while keeping lookouts staged in every direction.

When they did find the hostage-taker waiting for them, baby strapped to his chest and knife in hand, the team didn’t rush him or do anything to increase the already palpable tension in the room. Instead, they lowered their weapons and backed off. A single officer approached the man to negotiate, weapon down, speaking calmly and softly, while another off to the side kept a sidearm ready just in case. The rest of the team spread out, keeping their distance, and turned away to watch the other entrances to the space, leaving the negotiator to work.

The SRT used Urban Shield to practice de-escalation techniques – and they were rewarded for it. After they successfully calmed things down and negotiated with the man to release the infant, the Urban Shield evaluator congratulated them on their approach. The feedback he delivered, then and there, was that the BPD team did an excellent job – he highlighted their thoroughness (checking the refrigerator was something most teams missed), their safety (keeping eyes all around), and their effective and correct approach to de-escalation (minimizing pointing weapons and having only a single negotiating point person). Throughout the entire scenario, not a single shot was fired or a voice raised.

Urban Shield gave Berkeley’s Special Response Team practice staying calm and working as a team under pressure, safely navigating unfamiliar spaces, de-escalating confrontations, and negotiating with a hostage-taker. The feedback and criticisms delivered by the evaluators focused on the officer’s safety and the safety of potential bystanders and hostages, not of how quickly they killed enemies, and there was no marketing of military products.

What I saw at Urban Shield was starkly different from what I had been prepared to see based on characterizations of the program. Other police departments may approach it differently (and the complete overhaul in 2019 will be a welcome opportunity to ensure the program more holistically incorporates the progressive approach to policing that Berkeley has pioneered). Despite what may happen with other agencies, I saw BPD use Urban Shield responsibly – they used it to practice the techniques that we as a community have asked them to use when they’re on the streets protecting us.

Berkeley holds its police officers to exceptionally high standards – a fact our officers are proud of. But for them to continue meeting those high standards, they need to keep practicing the techniques and approaches that we tell them define successful policing, and they need to do so in stressful and unfamiliar situations, because they’re human. Like any human, without training and practice, they’ll make mistakes – and as we’re all too aware of, mistakes made by police officers have tragic consequences.

If our City Council votes to withdraw from Urban Shield, it would similarly be a mistake with potentially tragic consequences. No training is perfect, but our officers are using Urban Shield to do the job we’ve asked them to do, the way we’ve asked them to do it. At no cost to the city, that alone should be enough.

Editor’s Note: Berkeleyside updated the publication time after publication due to a technical issue with our daily newsletter. No other changes were made.

Ben Gould is a recent Master of Public Policy graduate from UC Berkeley. He worked as a legislative aide for Councilmember Lori Droste in 2017, and was formerly a candidate for City Council District 4.
Ben Gould is a recent Master of Public Policy graduate from UC Berkeley. He worked as a legislative aide for Councilmember Lori Droste in 2017, and was formerly a candidate for City Council District 4.