Police in Berkeley are struggling to rebuild the department after many departures. They launched a media campaign, with billboards, earlier this year to raise awareness about the shortage. Photo: Emilie Raguso

It came as a shock to everyone when Sgt. Chris Stines abruptly resigned from the Berkeley Police Department last week to start a new job in the private sector. In addition to running the police union for six years, the 20-year veteran was a valued member of BPD’s elite Special Response Team and a 13-year sergeant whose leadership skills and experience had won him deep respect and trust throughout the agency.

His departure was the latest in a wave of exits over the past two years as longtime Berkeley police officers have left the agency in record numbers. Some retired or changed careers, while others walked away from close friends and generous benefits to start anew in many cases, with lower pay and no seniority at other law enforcement agencies. The mass migration has shaken the faith of some who remain — and left them questioning BPD’s prospects for the future.

What has driven the exodus? Berkeleyside conducted in-depth interviews with more than a dozen officers who left for other agencies or retired in recent years, and spoke with officers who are still at BPD, to learn about the pressures inside and outside the department. Berkeleyside granted anonymity* to officers who said they were concerned talking to the media might impact their work. Law enforcement agencies have strict rules about who can speak to the press, and no one wanted to be seen to flout those regulations.

Many officers say BPD is a very different place today than it once was. People they began careers with years ago have gone elsewhere or retired. Officers look around and say they barely know the names of many who have come on. Those who left did so for a variety of reasons, but themes that emerged included the lack of political and community support; inadequate staffing, with days off denied and forced overtime; heavy caseloads for investigators; shrinking chances for special assignments; and sinking morale. Many who are still at BPD have expressed similar grievances.

One of the longtime officers who left, Jim Rogers*, said BPD now spends “a lot of time trying to train cops not to act, to be afraid of repercussions.” As a result, new hires aren’t getting much experience on basic skills, such as how to communicate and stay safe during a foot chase, or how to do probation searches and high-risk car stops. The city’s position, increasingly, he said, has been that “You don’t want to do that proactive stuff that can go bad.”

Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood, who has been speaking publicly about the department’s staffing challenges for the past year, has a different view. This week, he told Berkeleyside he’s been working hard to get new hires in the door and just brought on three experienced officers from another Bay Area police agency who should start in Berkeley in 2019. Greenwood said he recently made a “major shift” internally at BPD by pulling several officers into a new recruitment team in hopes of boosting applicant numbers considerably.

“We’re in the first steps of the recovery but we still have significant challenges ahead to get ourselves staffed,” he said Tuesday, adding that he’s aiming to hire 35 people in the next two years. “We’re far from calling that crisis over.”

Experience lost

The staffing crunch isn’t just about the numbers, officers say, it’s also about the experience that’s been lost. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Berkeleyside has been reporting on the department’s staffing crunch since 2014, though the issue has become more dire in recent years as numbers plummeted. As recently as January 2017, BPD had 174 sworn officers, not far off its fully-authorized level of 181. A graph showing staffing trends after that period, however, looks “just like a cliff,” Greenwood told Berkeleyside on Tuesday. The current level, officially, is 161, but the actual number of officers available to work is closer to 140, according to police association statistics.

It’s not that no one has been hired. On the contrary, from 2011 to the present, BPD brought on nearly 80 officers. But it lost almost 100 people over that time period, according to department data. And the percentage of officers who have left for other agencies has skyrocketed. From 2011 to 2014, just four BPD officers left for other agencies. From 2015 to 2018, 22 officers made the jump. Another three have said they plan to leave soon, and 12 are eligible to retire.

To get a sense of what’s been lost, however, means looking beyond the numbers. The officers who left took with them specialized skills that took years to develop, as well as both gender and ethnic diversity. They included investigators in sexual assault and property crimes, gang experts, the department’s leader in crisis intervention training and numerous sergeants, among many others.

“When you let people walk out the door that are great leaders who still have time and years to give, that’s a scary proposition,” said Ellen Mitchell*, an officer who left in 2016 for a smaller East Bay police department after 12 years at BPD. “And who pays the price ultimately is the community.”

Going to a new law enforcement agency — known in the industry as “lateraling” — has always been rare at the Berkeley Police Department, officers said. That’s because the city has historically paid exceedingly well and was highly selective, choosing officers with life experience and more advanced education than many other departments. It has also, in the not-too-distant past, been touted as one of the most racially representative departments in the country and one with a higher percentage of female officers than most agencies could boast. The department is still diverse, according to the city’s most recent workforce report, but officers who’ve left say they almost don’t recognize BPD these days.

“It’s not even the same department,” said Jane Albert*, a 10-year veteran who gave up a detective spot in Berkeley to move to a North Bay law enforcement agency in 2017. The amount of turnover has been startling, she said. Albert recalled how, when she began her career at BPD, an officer needed at least 15 years of seniority to make it onto the most desirable team, the Monday-to-Thursday dayshift. When she left in 2017, she said, an officer with nine or 10 years could have landed one of the coveted spots.

And female officers, who not long ago made up 20% of the agency, have dropped below the 13% national average to just 7%, according to recent department data. BPD has hired 11 female officers since 2011, but lost 24 women over that same time period, according to department data.

“You’ve lost so many female leaders,” said Mitchell. “You can never get that back.”

“It was always about people wanting to come to Berkeley”

Former Berkeley officers described what has felt like a “domino effect” as one longtime employee after another has said goodbye, particularly since 2015.

“We never had a period where people were leaving,” said Jeff Shannon, of his 13 years on the job. Shannon is a trained clinical psychologist who ran the Berkeley Police Department’s mental health crisis education program and has taught officers throughout the county about the power of verbal de-escalation. He retired in 2017 to pursue a different career. “All the time I had been there it was always about people wanting to come to Berkeley.”

Said Mitchell: “Nobody ever left Berkeley and lateraled. The thinking was, ‘Why would anyone do that? This is the best place.’ Well, we’re doing that now.”

“We wanted to be the best because we knew we were the best.”

She said officers within BPD have always had an abiding faith in the quality of their work and their robust approach to community service — despite what officers have described as the absence of industry-standard tools such as Tasers, police canines and, until recently, body cameras. There was pride in the education of the force — a two-year college degree is required and four-year degrees are common — and its professionalism, its commitment to talking problems through and using de-escalation techniques long before they were popular.

“We wanted to be the best because we knew we were the best,” Mitchell said, adding that she fears that feeling has become less central in leadership discussions about the department’s mission. “That pride is gone.”

BPD has made a number of efforts in 2018 to get its staffing numbers up. But there hasn’t been much success. At nearly every public staffing report throughout the year, police have said the number of officers available to work is in the 130s. The official number has been in the 160s, as it is now, but that doesn’t take into account people on leave or injured, or those who are in the academy or assigned to train new recruits.

Nearly every year since 2013, the department has lost more officers than it could hire. In most years, the net loss was only one or two people. But, in 2017, when it hired 10 people, 20 people left, according to department data. Half of those who left retired due to age or medical issues. Four resigned, five went to other agencies and one committed suicide.

Current and former Berkeley police say the department is a much different place than it once was. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley Police Association says, of the 100 or so departures since 2011, about a quarter have left BPD for other agencies. In 2018, 12 officers left. Half of them were laterals. That has far outpaced the normal rate of retirements or exits BPD has come to expect. Earlier this year, Stines, the union president who resigned last week, said he had been ringing the alarm bell about staffing with city officials for three years — but it didn’t seem to sink in until recently.

“There was a trend, and that’s what was making everybody nervous,” said Albert, the 10-year veteran who left last year, of the mood inside the department. “Good people were leaving, good leaders. That’s concerning because the people who are left are not always as good or as experienced. It starts to make you question the leadership. It makes you uneasy about the future.”

And, with so many experienced officers and investigators leaving, there’s a dwindling pool left who can pass down the skills needed to do investigative work, or even to handle a less typical call such as a rape case.

Shannon, the 13-year veteran who left last year, made a similar observation: “You have people that have institutional knowledge and are highly talented mid-career professionals leaving for other agencies — and that on its face is going to create a gap. Where are you going to fill that gap? We don’t have enough people to put on the street for patrol, let alone to put into a position as a sex crimes investigator. So we’re trying our best to hire these new officers, but what about … the talent level that’s leaving? That’s going to take many years to overcome.”

One officer told Berkeleyside that nearly half of the 77 Berkeley police officers on patrol have been hired since December 2015, meaning they’ve been at the department for three years or less. And the success rate for new hires is relatively low: Of the 53 officers BPD has hired since then, only 27 are still with the department.

Having such a junior department means a lot of new faces on the street, officers who are still getting to know Berkeley’s culture and police work in general. Younger officers have had less exposure to activity on the streets, and their reactions and instincts haven’t yet been honed and tested, veterans say. That could make them prone to underreaction or overreaction, both of which pose problems. The rookies are also still learning how to deal with the challenges, stress and trauma of the job: Rates of divorce, suicide and alcoholism are much higher for police, and their life expectancy is decades lower.

Even five years ago, officers said they could not have predicted this shift. Officers were pretty happy, recalled E. Combong, a former detective who left BPD for a smaller East Bay police department in 2017 after five years.

“I had every intention of retiring from Berkeley. It just became not a good place to work.”

“I had every intention of retiring from Berkeley. It just became not a good place to work,” he said. After months of high-stress protests in 2017, there were pressures around contract negotiations, undue interference by the City Council, a colleague’s suicide, “and then we went right into the protests again.”

Combong described an increasingly heavy caseload for investigators as positions went unfilled in an attempt to keep up with patrol demands while overall numbers declined. When he started as a detective, he said, he had about 100 cases to handle. By the end, it was up to 270. And investigators throughout the department faced similar spikes.

Combong said the most recent troubling trend is that newer cops aren’t sticking around. Add their departures to the many mid-career officers who have gone elsewhere, and it doesn’t bode well, he said.

“That’s the backbone of most police departments,” he said, of the officers with 8-15 years on the job. “Those are going to be your future leaders.”

Former BPD Chief Michael Meehan used to say BPD was more selective than Harvard. His criteria for that claim were never made explicit, but many officers recall the days — not so long ago — when hundreds of candidates would have competed for just a few open spots. In contrast, one retired officer said a recruitment test about a year ago saw only six candidates show up.

“Berkeley PD was like the rockstar of the departments in the Bay Area,” said Peter Bjeldanes, a 27-year veteran officer who retired in 2016. In the early 2000s, he recalled, “We were like No. 1 or No. 2 in pay and benefits, and we had all this history behind us. We were doing all kinds of different things, like the bomb squad, and other cool police stuff. Guys and gals, recruits and laterals, they were kicking the door down to get in.”

A perfect storm

Former Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan before his departure in 2016. Photo: Emilie Raguso

But, since 2010 or so, “all that’s changed,” Bjeldanes said. The hiring around that time of Meehan, an outside chief from Seattle, was fraught with friction from the beginning. Meehan left suddenly and with little explanation in 2016 after his lack of support within the department became public due to an in-depth article in Berkeleyside. Greenwood then became chief.

Anti-police protests that started in Berkeley in 2014 were another significant stressor, bringing with them long shifts and sometimes violent clashes with community members, officers said. Nationally, since 2014, community criticism of law enforcement has been on the rise as difficult conversations about police killings, and calls to reform policing, have intensified. Those voices have been loud in Berkeley, too, though there has not been an officer-involved shooting in the city since 2012, and complaints about misconduct and use of force have been few.

Local electoral trends have posed challenges for BPD, too, as City Council members elected in 2016 and 2017 have been among the most strident in their calls for police reform. That may have contributed to contentious contract negotiations between BPD and the city that began in 2017 and didn’t conclude until August. Add to that several citizen initiatives in development to give the Police Review Commission, or a similar body, more power to discipline police in Berkeley.

Some supporters of those reform efforts have said they do not think it’s a problem that Berkeley has fewer officers these days, as crime trends overall have fallen. Reformers have said civilians should take on some of the roles police have historically held, and that communities should look toward grassroots disaster preparedness models rather than law enforcement solutions to public safety matters. They have also noted that law enforcement agencies around the nation are having problems with recruitment as the profession has become less popular.

What is often left unsaid, however, is that BPD has seen calls for service rise in recent years as the city’s population has grown steadily. And while crime trends are down significantly nationwide in the past 25 years, the shorter-term picture isn’t as rosy: Berkeley has seen double-digit increases in violent crime over the past three years. Further, though crime reports overall declined in the first half of 2018, as compared to the same period in 2017, shootings doubled. There have been nearly two dozen shootings in Berkeley in 2018. They left 14 people with gun-related injuries.

Police responded to a shooting at San Pablo Park with multiple victims earlier this year. Photo: Citizen reporter

Prior to the contract agreement several months ago, officers — past and present — said the salary for Berkeley police had fallen behind many other agencies in the Bay Area. They’ve said it has come to feel at times that it’s simply not worth the headache to work in a city where demands are high while appreciation is in short supply.

The Berkeley Police Association, the union that represents BPD officers, made a concerted push to make those qualms clear in the past year by launching a media campaign they hoped would better educate the community about the demands of the job. The campaign included billboards, a website and interviews with the media. It was a shift for an organization that has tended to work behind the scenes to handle business rather than airing its concerns before the public.

During the most recent election, the BPA also spent thousands in direct mail to attack Councilwoman Kate Harrison, a candidate the union considered anti-police. Harrison voted to pull the Berkeley Police Department out of Urban Shield exercises and has advocated giving the Police Review Commission more power over the police department, two policies with which the BPA disagrees.

Not all the pressure has come from outside the department, however. Some of the officers who left have been highly critical about BPD leadership. They raised concerns about a lack of clarity in the mission and unpredictable promotion practices. They said the department let valued employees go too easily, with little interest in the reasons for the departures.

Officers, including some who are still at BPD, have said the department fails too often to make officers feel valued, and that too many of the special assignments and promotion chances that do exist are passed around among the same “golden kids” who make up a select in-crowd — rather than being equally distributed among all who are qualified.

“A department that size should not lose that many people”

Joe Recker*, one of the earliest officers to leave BPD for another agency, left in 2015 after nearly 16 years as a patrol officer and detective. The same year, BPD also lost Capt. Erik Upson, likely the agency’s most revered leader, when he was hired to run the Benicia Police Department. It was a demoralizing moment for many officers.

Recker’s departure was a red flag to many others, officers told Berkeleyside. Meehan, the chief at the time, did not offer Recker an exit interview, which numerous people said felt like a slap in the face.

“They just let that guy leave,” said Combong, the detective who left last year. “It’s almost like it took the fight right out of a lot of people.”

Recker told Berkeleyside he struggled with his decision for a long time, knowing he would have to say goodbye to all his friends and start again. But the December 2014 protests — working two weeks straight without relief for 15- to 20-hour days — were brutal. In one of the first confrontations between police and the public, members of the crowd hurled a sandbag, bottles and a brick at officers on the line. The projectiles hit their marks.

Protesters in Berkeley in December 2014 demanded an end to police brutality throughout the nation. Photo: Emilie Raguso

“It didn’t seem like the city cared at all, even when the cops were getting injured,” he recalled. He also remembered waiting helplessly for the OK from then-chief Meehan to use force to push angry demonstrators far enough away to keep officers safe. The order came eventually — but not before officers were hurt. For the first time in decades, police ultimately used tear gas to clear crowds from the area, which resulted in significant community criticism and many months of analysis and introspection for the department.

“People always tell me, ‘Don’t come back here. You made the best decision.’ I do feel bad because I think I started the wave.”

At various times, going back to BPD crossed Recker’s mind — under the police contract, the department lets officers return within two years without too much difficulty. But then the political clashes rolled through the city in 2017. Officers began to leave in increasing numbers. He heard tales of how bad morale had gotten and how low staffing had fallen.

He said there seemed to be a “mad rush” to leave and described the current BPD staffing level as “really decimated.”

“A department that size should not lose that many people,” Recker said. “People always tell me, ‘Don’t come back here. You made the best decision.’ I do feel bad because I think I started the wave.”

Recker and others who left said, in the end, they couldn’t put their lives on the line for a city that didn’t seem to care about their safety — particularly now that compensation isn’t as good, comparatively speaking, as it once was.

“You can get paid the same at many other agencies, and not deal with protests, not deal with a city that doesn’t like you,” he said. “Who wants to walk into a restaurant and not get served? We’d walk into stores and they’d say, ‘You’re not welcome.'”

“Because you’re a cop, you’re automatically bad”

A community member holds an anti-police sign in Berkeley during a protest in Berkeley on Dec. 7, 2014. Photo: Pete Rosos

Animosity toward the police has become increasingly common in recent years following the killing in 2012 of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, and what many saw as the failure of the justice system to convict his killer. That case ultimately sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, which grew in influence as a result of police shootings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and North Charleston, South Carolina — and numerous other cases. Multiple protests rolled through Berkeley in December 2014 after a grand jury in New York declined to indict the police officer who put Eric Garner in a banned chokehold prior to his death.

Though national research has shown that confidence in the police has largely recovered since Martin’s killing, that has not been much in evidence in Berkeley.

“There’s this weird sense among residents they know police work and can tell you how to do your job. It becomes a thorn in the side.”

“People say, ‘Fuck the police,’ and that’s fine,” said Shannon. “But over a period of months and years, it does wear on you. It’s not a reason to retire in and of itself, but it has an effect. Even on something innocuous, like a traffic stop, citizens walk up not knowing anything about what’s going on and they start making accusations. You would never walk into some accounting firm and go up to someone at their cubicle and tell them they’re not doing their job right. But there’s this weird sense among residents they know police work and can tell you how to do your job. It becomes a thorn in the side.”

Sgt. Patty Delaluna, who retired last year, earlier than she’d planned, after 22 years at BPD and three with the city before then, described Berkeley as a “very difficult” place to work. Delaluna said she always appreciated working in a liberal city and generally didn’t mind that people were “not necessarily thinking we’re the greatest.”

But being yelled at through a bullhorn for 30 minutes being told “I should die because I’m a ‘pig'” did take its toll, she said. Delaluna also recalled talking with a witness once, in the middle of a robbery investigation, when someone came up to interrupt her and call her “a cunt.”

“Because you’re a cop, you’re automatically bad,” she said. “And it shakes you because, at your core, most [officers] have really good intentions. We want to help the community.”

As morale has sunk, with staffing stretched and requests for days off sometimes denied, officers have found their own ways to manage the stress of rushing from one call to another and the constant community criticism, Delaluna said. Some call in sick more often, while others “just park” rather than going out to look for crime.

“People who I know who have always loved this job want to leave,” said Delaluna. During her first 15 years at BPD, she said she could think of just one or two people who left for other agencies. More recently, however, “people have just had it with this place. People just want out.”

Repeated allegations from some in the community about racial profiling have also taken their toll. As one possible indicator, ticket numbers have plunged. In 2014, Berkeley officers issued close to 8,000 citations annually. Recent years have seen totals closer to 5,000. In 2018, however, officers have written just 2,500 citations.

Multiple factors are likely at play: fewer police overall, a shrinking traffic bureau (the city currently has just one motorcycle officer handling traffic issues, compared to half a dozen in the old days), and the pushback against enforcement in general. Officers say they are much less likely now to do proactive work because of complaints from some community members that it too often targets minorities.

“You go out there and do car stops, they call you a racist,” said Bjeldanes, the 27-year veteran. “So you don’t want to do anything. You go to your calls for service. That’s what you do.”

Sgt. Spencer Fomby at a community meeting about gun violence in 2017. Chief Andy Greenwood (right) looks on. Photo: Emilie Raguso (file photo)

At a community meeting with police earlier this year about staffing problems at BPD, Sgt. Spencer Fomby told attendees that local politics have played a huge role in the growing number of departures. It’s a “buyer’s market” right now for officers, he said, as agencies compete for the best candidates — and recruits are few and far between.

“Anybody who thinks the political climate around here is not affecting that is not paying attention. We’re talking about the Berkeley effect.”

“Anybody who thinks the political climate around here is not affecting that is not paying attention,” said Fomby. “We’re talking about the Berkeley effect.”

The lack of support came up for many officers who have left. It’s also a common motif for officers still on the job in Berkeley. Shannon said it never felt like the Berkeley City Council supported BPD during his 13 years working for the city.

“It just felt to me we were considered an evil necessity,” he said. “My own personal sentiment was that the City Council kinda said, ‘We have to have a police department but we don’t like them.'”

But the top-notch compensation Berkeley officers have always gotten always balanced out the slights and stressors, said Bjeldanes. For a long time, the agency was said to be the highest-paid, or among the highest-paid, in Northern California.

“We would bitch and moan about different things, complain about the PRC, and deal with these political people calling us bad names,” he recalled. “But, in the end, we would always just laugh and say, ‘Man, they’re paying us pretty good, aren’t they? I’ll keep my lips zipped.'”

“Looking for scandals that aren’t there”

Sgt. Chris Stines (right) at a press conference in 2013 (file photo). Photo: Lance Knobel

In 2017, then-police union president Sgt. Stines went onto the “Blue Lives Radio” show to talk about some of the pressures Berkeley cops feel. He described officers not being allowed, during sometimes violent protests, to wear helmets because of the “optics issue”: a concern about the appearance of police militarization.

“That was such the driving concern behind … the tactics that we were being allowed to implement that it trumped all other aspects of concern in the situation: officer safety, public safety, all these things,” Stines told show host Randy Sutton.

Stines also discussed how, in most other cities, the police chief seems to have more control than in Berkeley.

“This is probably the only city that I know of where politics is so integrally involved in the decision-making around operational issues,” Stines said. In other places, he added, “you don’t have the city government, the elected officials, holding hearings over whether or not Tasers are burning people from the inside out.”

Community members and police (seen here at a City Council meeting in 2014) have butted heads for years over the issue of Tasers. Berkeley police have not been allowed to use them. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Stines told Sutton the staffing crisis had intensified after the 2016 election. He attributed “the exodus,” in large part, to newly elected officials who had made Berkeley “a very difficult place to work.”

“The whole mood of the council since the last election has been … looking for scandals that aren’t there, and looking at things that happen in other parts of the country and using that as the basis for more police reform [in Berkeley],” Stines said. “They’ve really been finding straw men to make this job even more difficult for the average Berkeley cop.”

The radio segment was recorded in the midst of numerous demonstrations in Berkeley in 2017 that drew extremists across the political spectrum into the streets for confrontations that at times turned violent.

“Every single cop on the line knows how quickly they’re going to turn on us if anything is perceived as going badly,” he said. “That there’s a political desire to make the story about us, as opposed to about the real criminals in the situation.”

It’s undeniable that many in Berkeley have strong feelings about how they want their police force to function.

“This community is very sensitive to government overreaching,” said Alison Bernstein, who has lived in Berkeley since she was 4 and served on the city’s Police Review Commission for many years. She said Berkeley’s history with the Free Speech Movement and other significant political efforts has definitely shaped community expectations. “With the history that we’ve come through, I understand why people are loath to have helicopters and canines.”

Bernstein said the department’s strong record of success without Tasers or helicopters was likely one reason support had been lacking: “It doesn’t appear to me that it’s honestly impacting their ability to police effectively. If they really want it, they ought to point out what they would do better if they had it.”

As for efforts to reform the city’s approach to police oversight, Mansour Id-Deen — president of the Berkeley NAACP — said other local agencies including BART, Oakland and San Francisco have all taken steps to strengthen their processes, and that Berkeley should follow suit.

“Berkeley has always been a leader of progressive programs that actually provide the citizens more input,” he said. “It seems to be lagging behind the other municipalities at this time. We think it would protect the police as well as civilians to move forward. It would be good for both parties if we had that in place in Berkeley.”

“A police department where nobody knows how to do investigations”

There are fewer officers available for investigations, and serving search warrants, as patrol work has taken precedence with the staffing crunch. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The tension between the work officers want to do and what the community wants them to do was a recurring theme for officers.

John Taylor* said it’s feeling, increasingly, like the city does not want cops to do traditional police work: “arresting bad people and putting them in jail for a long time.” He’s still at BPD but looked seriously at leaving in recent years. He ultimately turned down an offer from another department and decided to stick it out in Berkeley for now. Taylor said he noticed morale really start to tank in 2016 when BPD quietly disbanded its Drug Task Force.

The loss of the task force, officers have said, cut back on the agency’s investigative abilities in several ways. The task force, the officer said, “was kind of the propeller for officers who wanted to go into investigative units” — where police learned how to write search warrants and do surveillance, and “all the nuts and bolts of how to run an investigation.” Those officers also helped serve search warrants for detectives in other investigations.

The department said it disbanded the unit because drug activity has changed since the days, decades back, of open-air drug markets in certain parts of town. Organizations like the Berkeley NAACP and some city officials cheered the move as an acknowledgment that people of color in South and West Berkeley had been disproportionately targeted by the unit for too long.

Earlier this year, BPD also cut its Special Investigations Bureau — which helped conduct surveillance and was a key unit for developing confidential informants — to make sure patrol beats were filled. Those informants and the narcotics work of the Drug Task Force have historically played a critical role in helping police understand the city’s criminal landscape, officers said, how the homicides relate to the robbery crews and gangs in the city, because the pieces often fit together.

Taylor said the cuts have posed a significant problem: “Pretty soon you get to a police department where nobody knows how to do investigations.” Those shortcomings are exacerbated by the fact that Berkeley does not send officers to numerous regional and federal task forces, including those focused on human trafficking, computer crime and narcotics.

“It’s frustrating not to have those things,” he said. “It’s frustrating to want to do police work and feel like it’s not supported.”

Officers said other agencies with more special assignments, such as units focused on gangs and vice, or a drug task force, can be tempting destinations compared to what Berkeley currently has to offer. That’s particularly true as many BPD detective spots have gone unfilled in recent years to ensure patrol is fully staffed: About one-third of the investigations division’s 24 positions have been held open since 2017.

“People get bored. They don’t want to work a beat car forever,” Recker said. “At other places, you can ride a motorcycle. You can ride a dirtbike. You can ride a horse. It’s an issue that will only get better if there’s more staffing.”

“Dangerous, highly unpredictable calls”

Berkeley police in a role-playing drill about how to respond to a community member mental health crisis. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Another particular challenge for Berkeley officers is the high number of calls they handle involving people in mental health crisis. Shannon described the long wait times police experience when they need an ambulance for a mental health patient. Those calls can tie up multiple officers for hours as they wait for the ambulance to come, from outside Berkeley, to take the patient away. (Private ambulance companies, not BFD, handle those calls.)

“It takes the wind out of your sails when you want to go prevent crime,” he said. “It’s not what a 21-, 22-, 23-year-old thinks they’re going to be doing when they begin the process to become a cop.”

Albert — the 10-year veteran now working in the North Bay — recalled, when she started her career, getting sent to one or two mental health calls a shift. That number later jumped to 6-8.

“A lot of these calls are absolutely crazy,” she said. “These are dangerous, highly unpredictable calls. And that’s a drain on an officer.”

In one incident she handled, an individual was trying to mutilate their genitals with a cattle castration tool to change their gender. She also was tasked with helping find housing for a woman who had been living in Aquatic Park for four years, subsisting on a diet of rats, acorns and leaves. “She painted her whole face and was talking in a made-up language. This is all, like, major social work stuff — not cop stuff.”

In trainings and classes with officers from other agencies, she said, those officers would talk about having one call involving a psychiatric commitment in a week, if that. It was a stark contrast to what Berkeley officers routinely deal with. Berkeley’s reputation would also come up during trips to drop off prisoners at the county jail.

“Anytime we go out there, all the deputies laugh, and say, ‘Oh, Berzerkeley’s comin’ in, what crazy are you bringing us this time?'” she said.

One newer officer who is still at BPD, Mason George*, said he doesn’t think the bulk of the city realizes what a strong police force it has.

“I’ve never seen so many officers that are that good in one place. I’ve never seen one bad egg,” he said. He and others said BPD officers excel at helping those in mental health crisis, and take on many tasks officers at other agencies wouldn’t handle.

“Providing rides to people who need it, helping people with shelter, that kind of thing,” he said. “The stuff that doesn’t fall under normal police duties, yet Berkeley does it and is so good at it. And the community doesn’t even know it.”

“They were scared to make a wrong decision”

Meanwhile, officers who have left the city have described the decision they made as the right one.

Combong, the detective who left after five years, said he has lost 20 pounds and seen his blood pressure drop — despite having to start back on the weekend graveyard shift on patrol again, the lowest spot on the totem pole — after losing all his seniority.

“For me, it’s like new life. It’s given me a sense of purpose again,” he said. “I’m happy to be back in the thick of things.”

At his new agency, he said officers and members of the public alike are confused by the Berkeley approach he brings to the streets. The response he said he often gets is, “You’re a little bit too polite. I don’t know how to trust you.”

The word “toxic” came up repeatedly in conversations with officers who explained their departures.

“Everybody that’s left is happy,” said Delaluna. “Everybody says that Berkeley [PD] is just toxic in many, many ways. You could deal with the city if you had the morale and the support in the department.”

Some who left said they had not felt their knowledge or skills were valued by peers — and that they could not get support from leadership when they tried to alert them to the cliques and infighting.

“I literally felt like a domestic violence survivor every time I went to work,” said Mitchell. “It was like this cycle of violence every day, mentally. They get you so low you start to second-guess yourself.”

She said, rather than an environment of trust, the agency was guided by “fear-based leadership” — a hesitancy to make decisions due to a concern about possible ramifications in the community. She left because there was “no longer a comprehensive mission or vision I could trust.” At her new agency, she’s in a leadership role and has been “encouraged rather than subjugated.” A number of women who left because of what they saw as limited opportunities for promotion have excelled in their new departments, multiple people said.

George, the newer officer who is still at BPD, also said operations are too often hampered by concerns about liability and politics. He said body cameras are just one of many examples: They were under discussion at BPD for years and had been installed in chargers in the department wall since late 2017. But the policy that guided their use was still a matter of debate until last month — when they finally were fully deployed.

“They were scared to make a wrong decision,” he said. “If it’s a bad decision, they don’t want their name to be attached.”

Police body cameras were charging at the department for nearly a year — as internal policy discussions wore on — before officers got to put them on in October. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Many credit Chief Greenwood, a Berkeley native, with caring deeply about the community and the department — but some have said they fear he hasn’t been able to do what it takes to fix the systemic problems within BPD.

Recker, the 16-year veteran, said former chief Meehan “steered us in a bad direction” — in part by instituting new promotion practices that cost more money and required more work, but did not — many officers told Berkeleyside — result in what felt like a more equitable process. At times, the officer said, the new setup prioritized good test takers over strong supervisors. In other cases, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason with promotions, as people who scored low and had limited experience won out over others.

“They ended up picking whoever they wanted anyway,” he said. “Why even do this test? Save the money and save everybody all this anguish.”

Another officer who went to another agency said she had run up against the “closed little society” that seemed to get all the promotions and special assignments over everyone else who applied. She tried numerous times to get into one of the specialized units or detective spots she felt would allow her to do the work she was most interested in, but kept getting passed over — despite what other officers described to Berkeleyside as her stellar work ethic and productivity. Eventually, she decided, enough was enough.

“I’m never going to change the culture here. I’m not going to kill myself trying to get something I’m never going to get,” she remembered thinking. “I had too many years left in my career to do meaningless shit. I refused to become the angry person that just pushed a beat car in the middle of the night and just slept on the hill on Marin Avenue. They just get tired of trying. And I don’t blame them.”

Multiple people told Berkeleyside that a fraction of the officers seem to handle the bulk of the work, while others don’t do much at all. Some have complained that there isn’t enough accountability in place to address workplace issues that crop up so weaknesses can be corrected or performance improved. And numerous female officers who left BPD told Berkeleyside they didn’t feel supported in the department.

“Women are always held to a stricter standard,” one sergeant who left said this week. “Rumors often circulate about women that are not substantiated or confirmed. These rumors have an impact on the ability to secure special assignments and promotions, and impact a woman’s credibility. In terms of culture, men have overwhelmingly supported each other. A male employee may have a work-related injury and it’s not a concern. A woman gets an injury and it becomes a source of scrutiny as to the woman’s strength, ability to handle her job and competency.”

Interviewees also said the suicide in mid-2017 of Officer Alan Roberds was “the last straw” for many who had been looking to leave. Roberds was 47 and had worked for BPD for 15 years. He had been on the bike patrol, an assignment he loved, and one that has been popular within the community because it puts officers in close contact with the public. The unit was disbanded in 2017 due to short staffing.

There were strong indications Roberds’ suicide was closely tied to work stress, officers have told Berkeleyside.

“There was nothing else in his life to indicate a problem,” Combong said. “He couldn’t take the time off that he needed to take because there was nobody else to work.”

Officers said they felt guilty about Roberds’ death, that they didn’t see the signs and hadn’t been able to intervene.

“That shook everybody to their core,” said Albert. Roberds had spoken up within the department about problems with staffing and unfair promotions, and asked why those issues weren’t being addressed, she recalled. “We were all noticing the changes within the department. We were all unhappy, and morale was low. But you never know how deeply it affects people.”

Efforts to turn the tide

Berkeley Police Chief Andy Greenwood, left, has been working to address a staffing crunch. Photo: Emilie Raguso (file photo)

Despite the many irreplaceable losses, there may be some signs of improvement on the horizon. Four officers who left for other agencies have since returned. And Chief Greenwood said BPD has been having “better luck with our candidates” as far as applicants who are making it farther through the process.

Several months back, he said, he convened an internal working group to discuss staffing. The group said BPD would not recover if it can’t “increase the size of the pipeline” to attract more applicants. They said the department must also speed up its hiring process without lowering its standards. Greenwood said he took their advice to heart and created a 4.5-person team focused solely on recruitment and hiring.

The team has been active on social media in an effort to do more outreach and show the personality of the department, Greenwood said. It’s been hitting recruitment fairs and is looking to expand those efforts. There can’t be “anything less than a wholehearted commitment to get people in place,” the chief said. “We don’t have a choice. The most important thing is to get our staffing up to the highest level possible as quickly as possible.”

The department is planning to push out internet ads and invest in professional marketing services in the near-term, too.

Greenwood said he’s also worked to speed up background checks by using outside investigators rather than officers at BPD. The city’s Human Resources department is holding more recruitments sessions per year than it used to, and BPD has been offering more testing dates than it did before. BPD is also looking to create a program to give bonuses to new hires who hit certain milestones, and give current employees a sort of finder’s fee for helping bring new people into the organization.

Greenwood said he’s hoping to be fully staffed in the next 12-24 months and wants to begin, even sooner, to get bodies back into the eight detective slots that are open. He also wants to create a proactive unit, not tied to patrol, that can focus on crime series and help with surveillance operations and search warrants.

Ideally, he said, he’d also like to bring back a bike unit to address quality-of-life issues in the city, downtown and on Telegraph Avenue, but also in the neighborhoods. Boosting numbers in the traffic division is another goal.

Greenwood said it’s too soon to say when all of that might happen, however, and doesn’t have a particular staffing target in mind for when it might be possible.

“I’m constantly reevaluating based on what the numbers are,” he said. “We’ve made great progress and great moves to increase our ability to attract and retain people. We need to continue to not let up.”

What comes next?

The Berkeley police and fire station (file photo). Photo: Emilie Raguso

Officers who have left suggest a less optimistic timeline than the chief: They believe it could take six to eight years to rebuild the department. And the March timesheet — the number of officers available for patrol — “looks terrible,” said Rogers, with so many retirements coming up and 10 officers who are currently looking to leave: “It feels very fragile.”

“You could try to stop the bleeding and hopefully no one leaves anymore. But I think it’s too late,” said Recker, the 16-year veteran. It takes more than a year, he added, to get new officers through the academy and training and out onto the street on their own.

“They lost too many people,” he said. “I don’t know how they’re going to fix it.”

One veteran officer who is still at the department said he has been particularly concerned about the decreasing numbers of female and minority officers, particularly as contract negotiations dragged on earlier this year.

“We’re losing a lot of our diversity in this staffing crunch,” he said. “We’re the public sector, but there is a job market. Nobody wants to acknowledge that, if you want to attract people — and not just people, but qualified people — there is a market.”

The contract the city gave BPD was “decent,” he said this week, but “there’s still a lot of talk about leaving.”

He said people have continued to go to other agencies or retire at the first chance possible when, in the past, they would have stuck around past retirement age because they enjoyed the work. Now, they have more options, particularly as the economy recovers. People with law enforcement experience are in high demand from other agencies as well as the private sector, he said. One employee who left not long ago took a job at Tesla. Stines, the former police union president, went into the private sector, too.

“Our skills are marketable,” he said. “And politics, the anti-police sentiment, is still a real issue.”

Some of the people who left toward the end of their careers, including Stines, Recker and Delaluna, left significant medical benefits on the table rather than stick it out just a few more years, to age 50 when better retirement benefits would have kicked in. Those longtime officers were eligible under their contract to lock in their city medical coverage, until  65, when they retired. When rates increased, they would have to pay the difference. But the bulk of the premiums would have been covered. To put in so many years and elect to forgo that benefit by leaving prematurely speaks volumes, police said.

“I’m proud of him and I think it’s gutsy, but it is a shock,” said Mitchell, of Stines’ departure in particular. “It’s a lot of time you put in to just walk away. If that doesn’t send shockwaves, I don’t know what else needs to happen. It defies all reasonable conjecture of what we all sign up for when we get into this.”

Bjeldanes said he’s not convinced the city will be able to attract many new recruits given the current national climate. He spoke highly of Chief Greenwood, but said candidates are likely to go elsewhere, where they can find more opportunities and more community support along with a comparable enough salary.

“The honey over there is all gone,” he said. “There’s just no reason for people to really get excited about going to Berkeley anymore. They’re leaving because there’s no reason to stay and deal with the political bullshit and the stress of working in Berkeley.”

Taylor, the officer who is still at Berkeley but has considered other jobs said, if nothing changes, the future looks bleak.

“The only people who are going stay at Berkeley are going to be the ones who are OK with the way it is because they can come to work and do nothing,” he said. “Maybe that’s what the city wants: Officers that park in a parking lot and do nothing.”

* Pseudonyms have been designated by an asterisk on first reference 

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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 of the Year...