A BPD Special Response Team member applying a tourniquet to a role player at Urban Shield. Photo: BPD

The Berkeley City Council voted 5-4 Monday night to let the city’s first responders, including police, join in this year’s Urban Shield exercise.

Supporters of the training, which is run by the Alameda County sheriff’s office, sent more than 100 letters to city officials pleading for continued access to the program. But the vast majority of the standing-room-only crowd in the council chamber Monday were local activists from Berkeley and around the Bay Area who said the program is too controversial and flawed for the city to be involved.

Bay Area activists have led a strong movement in recent years to shut down the annual Urban Shield exercise, which includes a vendor show and an intensive 48-hour series of competitive scenarios related to active shooters, terrorism and hostage situations. The Berkeley police Special Response Team — what other cities call SWAT — has taken part in the competition for about a decade.

Critics say the exercises promote racial profiling and militarization, rather than the community policing and grassroots disaster preparedness efforts the city should prioritize instead. Proponents of the tactical training say it’s the most rigorous, realistic and beneficial training of its kind, and that there is no comparable alternative currently available.

The exercise itself has been undergoing reform this year in response to community concerns. The sheriff’s office has pledged publicly to make a number of changes already, Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said Monday night. Those include the eschewal of racist messages and stereotyping, more community involvement, and a pledge not to have training on crowd control this year. Many activists and some council members said Monday, however, that they simply do not trust Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern to follow through with any of those commitments.

Ultimately, Mayor Jesse Arreguín sided with Wengraf, and Councilwomen Lori Droste, Sophie Hahn and Linda Maio — over the opposition of council members Kate Harrison, Cheryl Davila, Ben Bartlett and Kriss Worthington — to allow police and fire participation to continue in 2018. The Wengraf motion included a pledge to send two council members, as yet unchosen, to the county meetings that will help reform Urban Shield, as well as a commitment — penned by Hahn on the dais — to continue to work to build public trust, particularly between police and communities that have historically borne the brunt of disparate law enforcement efforts nationwide.

Hot pink “BPD out of Urban Shield” signs were in abundance Monday. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Hot pink “BPD out of Urban Shield” signs were in abundance Monday. Photo: Emilie Raguso

By the time council members took their final vote at about 9:45 p.m., many members of the crowd had left the special meeting, which had begun at 4 p.m. with a nearly two-hour discussion related to police partnerships with other law enforcement agencies. But some who remained for the vote yelled “shame” when the Wengraf motion to continue participation in Urban Shield succeeded.

On the dais, officials on both sides of the debate pointed out that, in the end, the decision really only came down to eight officers over one weekend in a year.

Harrison said, from her perspective, Urban Shield is not worthy of BPD’s participation, and that the city can re-evaluate police participation later and re-apply once it knows what the training will look like in the future. Davila, who has advocated a complete withdrawal from Urban Shield for police, firefighters and disaster preparedness groups, said change is urgently needed and that Urban Shield is “training our officers to kill, to kill Black and Brown people.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Wengraf had made her motion to continue city participation in the program, and Harrison had made a substitute motion to pull police out in response, in part, to the “overwhelming sentiment of many members of our community.”

Wengraf took issue with the point, which also was a recurring theme during public testimony: Many speakers said they represented “the community” and told Berkeley officials they would be wise to respect the obvious community will.

“The word ‘community’ doesn’t only apply to this room,” Wengraf said, noting the many letters she had gotten from supporters of the training. Members of the crowd then called out to her to ask where the opposing voices were. “Most of the people don’t come because they don’t like the hostility,” she answered.

“You are listening to the community but you are not listening to our police department. These people are part of the community as well,” Wengraf told her fellow officials, as they were about to vote on the Harrison motion. “Kriss’s motion is to listen to the people in the room but turn a deaf ear to the police department.”

Worthington and Droste pointed out that, even if the Harrison motion had won, that would have triggered legally required discussions between the city and the police union — which easily could have taken so long that the vote would have been merely symbolic, because police would have been able to take part in the fall training had those discussions not concluded.

Ultimately, however, council did vote to allow Berkeley police and firefighters to stay in the training this year. Officials also voted earlier in the night, unanimously, to ask Congress to create more grants to pay for disaster preparedness activities, and to send letters to county leaders — the Board of Supervisors and the sheriff — about ways to reform Urban Shield and create an “accountability mechanism for enforcing them.”

[Correction: The substitute motion that failed was made by Councilwoman Kate Harrison. The story has been corrected to reflect this.]

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...