BPD SRT members applying a tourniquet to a training dummy during a hostage rescue scenario. Photo: BPD

Berkeley officials are set to vote Monday afternoon, during a special meeting, on whether to allow city police officers to take part in Urban Shield tactical exercises this year.

The exercises, run by the Alameda County sheriff’s office, have drawn steep criticism and controversy in recent years, as activists have fought to shut down the program, saying it has militarized local agencies and included racially-insensitive training, among other concerns. Earlier this year, county officials promised to pull funding from Urban Shield if big changes were not made. The latest news from the county seems to indicate that many adjustments are in the works in response to community concerns. But whether Berkeley police will be allowed to participate remains an open question.

Advocates for the exercises say they provide Berkeley first responders with a critical resource to prepare for the most serious emergencies the city could face, and that there is nothing currently available that’s as robust, or would be comparable, to replace it.

The Berkeley City Council voted in June 2017 to create a four-person subcommittee to study Urban Shield to determine whether the city should be involved, and to what extent. That subcommittee, made up of Mayor Jesse Arreguín and councilwomen Kate Harrison, Cheryl Davila and Susan Wengraf, then voted early last month — over Wengraf’s opposition — to pull police from the tactical scenario exercises. But then, toward the end of the month, the mayor pulled his vote, citing legal concerns, leaving the status of the earlier vote in question.

Now, the full council is set to meet Monday at 4 p.m., in City Council chambers, to vote on the issue. The document-heavy agenda includes a 42-page report prepared by Harrison’s office, which makes it clear why Harrison, Davila and Arreguín voted to pull BPD from the exercises, as well as a 22-page “minority report” from Wengraf where she expresses why she thinks BPD should be involved.

Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood has also prepared his own 19-page report about the benefits he believes the department, and the community, have gleaned from the training.

Harrison wrote that “the positive public safety benefits of Berkeley’s participation in the event’s tactical scenarios for an additional year are relatively small,” and “will likely not have [a] measurable positive effect on the City’s preparedness for critical incidents.”

Wengraf writes that the sheriff has already agreed to make substantial changes to Urban Shield, and that all of Berkeley’s first responders should continue to participate.

Greenwood wrote that there is ample evidence to show the beneficial impacts the training has had in Berkeley, and no evidence to the contrary. In addition, he wrote, the future of the city’s Special Response Team — which has attended Urban Shield for the past decade — could be in jeopardy, depending on the outcome of Monday’s vote.

“Two of the most senior and respected team members have declared their intention to resign from the team should SRT be banned from training in Urban Shield scenarios,” he wrote, and other members of the team have said they are seriously considering resigning, too, he added. That could leave any response to Berkeley emergencies in the hands of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team, according to Greenwood.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín has not responded to multiple interview requests from Berkeleyside this week regarding the upcoming meeting.

Berkeleyside will be in attendance Monday and will continue to report on developments in this story.

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...