Officials vow to increase police staffing, with available officers at historic low

The pledge came amid a lengthy discussion on the annual crime report, use-of-force and police stop data, traffic collision statistics and more.

Berkeley City Council members had many questions for Interim Berkeley Police Chief Jen Louis on Tuesday night, Oct. 19, 2021. Credit: Berkeleyside

The Berkeley Police Department has hit what appears to be a historic low in staffing, with just 149 officers on the roster as of October, according to data reported Tuesday night during the annual crime report.

See the staff report and slides from Tuesday’s meeting and Berkeleyside’s full Twitter thread

That number does not include another 10-15 officers who are out at any given time due to injuries and other types of leave. At least three officers in the city’s traffic bureau are currently out on injury, for example, leaving just one officer assigned to traffic enforcement across the entire city.

The picture ahead looks even bleaker, officials observed, with 20 officers eligible to retire in the next two years and just six new recruits now hitting the academy. The dispatch center, too, continues to struggle with chronic understaffing, BPD and city officials said.

Those shortages affect morale, the type of calls police can respond to quickly, and the amount of time officers are able to spend with community members and on follow-up investigations, Interim Berkeley Police Chief Jen Louis told the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday night. The staffing crunch has led to forced overtime and reduced opportunities for training, too.

“That chart of our sworn personnel is pretty terrifying,” Councilmember Rigel Robinson said Tuesday night. “That paints a seriously concerning picture.”

Berkeley police staffing appears to be at a historic low, BPD said Tuesday. See the full slide set. Credit: BPD

During a BPD staffing crisis in 2017 and 2018, levels were still above those the city is seeing now. At that time, many officers went to other agencies or retired. To stem the outflow, BPD created a recruitment team and took other steps to rebuild.

Interim Chief Louis said it took a “monumental effort” focused on strong recruitment to get back up to the 170-officer range in the years that followed. The department was unable to sustain those gains, however.

“You can see how rapidly it went back down,” she told officials, due to retirements, including medical retirements, and people leaving the profession.

In the last two fiscal years, the City Council has frozen more than 20 open police positions and a handful of civilian jobs and held them vacant, using the salary savings — more than $6 million — to help balance the city budget in the face of challenges posed by COVID-19. Some of the money has also been earmarked to support the ongoing process to reimagine public safety in Berkeley, with stepped-up anti-bias training for police, more transparency around BPD data and other efforts.

Tuesday night marked a change in the narrative, however, as officials said the time is coming to launch a phased-in approach that will get more Berkeley police officers on the job.

“We’re going backwards in the progress that we made,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín. “We can’t just cut the police and reallocate the money and think that’s going to be the solution.”

Arreguín also said it’s important to remember that police staffing shortages, and municipal staffing woes in general, are state and national problems. But he said that doesn’t make local impacts on community safety any less concerning.

“We need more boots on the ground,” he said, adding that the city must also make serious investments in alternative models that address the root causes of violence. Public safety, he added, means many things to different people.

Officials and City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley also noted that they don’t want to get ahead of the public process underway regarding police reform in Berkeley. The next six weeks will see multiple milestones in that work, to culminate in a special City Council meeting Dec. 2.

That evening, council is scheduled to hear proposals from the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force and its consultant, the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR), on alternatives to policing, changes to police dispatching and more.

Officials said that discussion, and those that follow, will be important. But they also said the staffing needs are clear.

“We have to overfill a police department in order to even keep our numbers close,” Williams-Ridley said, especially with so many retirements expected: “We’ve got to get in front of that.”

On Tuesday night, several council members — including the mayor — said their intention in creating the reimagining task force last year was not, in fact, to see the BPD budget slashed by 50%, although that was one element of an “omnibus package” of police reform proposals they voted to analyze and put before the public as part of a deep engagement process this year.

Much of that engagement work is scheduled to take place in November at a series of town halls organized by NICJR in collaboration with council and task force members. (Stay tuned for details.)

On Tuesday night, Mayor Arreguín said he hopes the task force, in the Dec. 2 meeting, will suggest ways to reduce gun violence as well as how to better serve the community “with the police we have.”

Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani said she supports the reimagining process and alternatives such as a new Specialized Care Unit — still in the works — that would respond instead of police to non-violent calls involving people in crisis. She said it is also vital to question the police budget — a hefty portion of Berkeley’s general fund spending — and what community expectations of police are.

But she said broad cuts to the budget would be a mistake and that council erred by including that proposal in its omnibus bill.

“I did not agree with it at the time and I wish I had spoken up about that,” Kesarwani said Tuesday. “It wasn’t based off of any data or any understanding of what that would have meant.”

Councilmember Lori Droste had broached the same topic earlier in the night.

“A 50% reduction in policing is infeasible and not data-driven. I think we all know that,” she said. Droste said part of keeping the community safe entails ensuring BPD has the resources it needs to do data-driven work that tackles crime efficiently.

Using data to tailor its approach to policing was a recurrent theme for BPD on Tuesday night. The department said it is capturing more data than ever and using those findings to improve training and operations. It is also working to hire two crime analysts to help bolster those efforts. The application period closed recently and candidates are now under review.

The staffing discussion came after a rapid-fire report from BPD on many aspects of police data in Berkeley throughout 2020 and part of 2021. Police presented more data and reports during the 2021 annual crime report than have ever been shared before.

Among many highlights, BPD said violent and property crime were down in Berkeley in 2020, and that the city’s violent crime rate had been lower than many of its neighbors. Berkeley’s property crime rate was among the highest in the area, however, second only to Oakland, according to department data.

While overall trends were down, BPD pointed out that gunfire has continued to increase in Berkeley, a trend that began in 2018 and has been seen around the nation. Police said catalytic converter and auto thefts have been growing problems in Berkeley as well, along with elsewhere in the region.

On a more positive note, rape and robbery reports were down significantly in Berkeley in 2020, and the city has had no homicides this year. There have, however, been six traffic fatalities in 2021 — an increase over last year — and many of those investigations remain open.

Police also shared annual use-of-force statistics showing that, on average, officers have used force in recent years an average of about once in every 32 arrests.

Last year, the City Council approved more stringent use-of-force reporting requirements for Berkeley police, which went into effect in February. Since then, police have found, 95% of the force officers have used has fallen into the lowest two categories — resulting in either momentary pain or none at all. And 87% resulted in neither injury nor complaint of pain, BPD said.

Council members said they were pleased to see the more granular reporting, which seemed to be moving in the right direction, and also asked for demographics for each level of force. BPD agreed immediately to provide that information.

Berkeley police stops have been dropping significantly in recent years, according to department data. Credit: BPD

DIVE DEEPER: Download raw police stop data from the city website

BPD also provided an update on police stops involving drivers and pedestrians, which have historically seen Black community members overrepresented compared to their share of the Berkeley population. Last year, in an effort to better understand the dynamics of those stops, BPD began to collect much more data about them — more than two years in advance of a state directive to do so.

Racial disparities continue to exist in the data. But council members said they were pleased to see that stops are down significantly and that the “yield rate” — how often police find contraband such as weapons or drugs during searches — was similar across races.

Experts have said disparate or low yield rates are a red flag that can be evidence of racial profiling. Until this past year, Berkeley did not track this data point, which led to numerous unanswered questions about the meaning of racial differences in the data. There are still many questions to be answered and analyses to be done, but the more nuanced data should make that work more accurate and feasible.

The department is working to create a public dashboard that will make all of its data more readily accessible.

Councilmember Kate Harrison said she expects BPD to take that further by providing regular reports on the data, in line with prior council discussions around Berkeley’s fair and impartial policing goals to reduce racial disparities.

“You will see tangible results,” Interim Police Chief Louis pledged. “We intend to hold ourselves accountable to hitting the mark on that.”

The bulk of BPD’s stops over the past year resulted from moving violations, BPD said. And Louis said officers have “changed the way we focus our proactive efforts” with the goal of “fewer but more focused stops.” She said she believes this will increase yield rates and also “have a more positive footprint in our community.”

Council members told Louis that Tuesday’s report was the most comprehensive and best they could recall. And they said they like the direction the already excellent department seems to be moving.

“I’m just really pleased with the progress that’s been made, but recognize that we have challenges we have to address also,” Arreguín said.

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.