Berkeley is forging ahead with plans to create a new mental health team to respond, instead of police, to people in crisis on city streets, and continues to lobby for changes in state law that could one day charge civilians rather than armed officers with certain types of traffic enforcement.

Council highlights from Berkeleyside’s live coverage: Part 1 | Part 2

In a meeting last week, the Berkeley City Council said it has not lost sight of the promises it made following George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, to come up with a transformative approach to community safety.

“Two years ago, thousands of people marched in the streets in Berkeley, millions across the country, demanding change. This council voted unanimously to transform our approach to public safety. I still believe that means something,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín in Thursday night’s special meeting. “Berkeley has to show that, while change takes time, when we work together as a whole community we can make real progress toward a new vision of public safety.”

Thursday’s meeting was the first chance for officials, and the public, to hear what staff believes to be the most pressing — and feasible — priorities toward that end. They include a new civilian Specialized Care Unit (SCU) pilot program focused on behavioral health crisis response; an emergency dispatch center analysis to determine how the city can better respond to medical calls; and the creation of a new Office of Race Equity and Diversity.

Staff also discussed continued work on BerkDOT, a new division or department of transportation that would help the city work toward its goals of reducing racial disparities in traffic stops and ending serious and fatal crashes by 2028.

The proposed package from staff has a one-year price tag of about $12.45 million, but City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said it’s just one piece of a broader landscape that could also include ideas from officials and the community.

“You have so much information before you,” she told officials. “I do appreciate you all taking the time to review it and take from it what you can use.”

Arreguín said he plans to return in early May with a “framework” that could include staff ideas as well as proposals from a community task force and hired consultants who met over the past year to come up with their own recommendations — including workforce training and a guaranteed income pilot program — for how Berkeley might reimagine public safety.

Short-term plans include hiring more officers

But broad systemic change is unlikely to happen soon. Aside from the SCU, which has been the focus of an intensive effort by community stakeholders and city staff, the bulk of the reimagining work remains at the concept stage. Little is known about how it might be funded or who exactly would do it.

Officials said, at least for now, that means Berkeley will need to hire more police officers, with current staffing at crisis levels and some types of serious crime, including shootings, on the rise. One person has already been killed, and five others wounded, in gunfire on city streets this year.

To add to the pressure, traffic fatalities reached a record high last year, straining department resources.

BPD said 30 of its 155 or so officers will be eligible to retire in the next two years, and that one-third of the force will reach eligibility within five years. The staffing crunch has already resulted in reduced bandwidth for detectives and traffic officers, and caused BPD to depend on overtime to cover patrol beats on a near-daily basis.

The idea on the table is to unfreeze more than 20 officer positions that have been held vacant since mid-2020 — amid other austerity measures in the city that were prompted by COVID-19 — and work to intensify recruiting. But the city manager cautioned that hiring is likely to be tough, and slow.

Stepped-up recruitment efforts might include incentive packages, the city manager said, particularly given the high demand for more officers around the region: “We have to start now because it takes two years to get their boots on the ground,” Williams-Ridley said. “I don’t even know that we can get 10 officers in the door between now and two years from now. But we’ve got to try.”

Officials said authorizing the city to hire up to 181 officers is largely a budgeting tool: It maintains “police” funding that can actually — at least in part — be used to make reimagining work happen.

Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani said she did not see the hiring of officers as a retreat from that work: “I think we need to do both,” she said.

Kesarwani and other officials said they support plans by BPD for a staffing and beat structure analysis to assess how many officers the department — and community — actually need.

That assessment is likely to be a challenge, several council members pointed out, as the city has not yet definitively defined what kind of duties it plans to shift away from police or when that might happen.

Those decisions will come about through pilot programs and data analysis as the city moves carefully forward, staff said.

The SCU: A “new option for those better served by a non-police response”

To a large extent, timing will depend on when new efforts like the SCU can get off the ground. A pilot version of the program could be running by the end of the year.

The three-person mobile teams, equipped with their own vans, will be designed to respond without police to nonviolent “mental health crises and substance use emergencies,” according to key program recommendations. They will work 10-hour shifts and have resources on hand as well as the ability to provide transport services.

The program is estimated to cost more than $5 million a year.

As per suggested guidelines for the current proposal, the SCU could be sent to a range of calls, from concerns about suicidal thoughts to welfare checks, drug overdoses, intoxicated people and indecent exposure. Also on the list for an SCU response are suspicious circumstances, disturbances, trespassing and “social disorder.”

To do that work, the city plans to contract with a community organization rather than create a new unit in-house, city analyst Katie Hawn told officials Thursday night.

“The SCU should be available 24/7 for community members,” Hawn said, “because we don’t necessarily know when crisis will occur.”

The SCU will be different from the city’s existing, longstanding Mobile Crisis Team. The MCT is staffed by clinicians employed by the city who work closely with police. But the team has struggled for years due to short staffing, which has resulted in limited hours and services.

“Rather than duplicating the MCT’s model, the SCU model provides a new option for those better served by a non-police response,” according to SCU program materials. “A dedicated response unit for mental health, behavioral health, and substance use emergencies will also help to build community trust and increase the likelihood that someone will call for help when they are in a crisis.”

The SCU will focus on calls deemed safe. If there are safety concerns, such as the confirmed presence of a “serious weapon,” the idea would be to dispatch the MCT and police. If an SCU team feels unsafe, they can call the MCT and police for backup.

The program is slated to include an alternative phone number that is separate from 911 so that people who don’t want to call police can still seek help. There will be public outreach to ensure people know about the new program and how to reach it.

There will also be a “very formal evaluation process to make sure people actually are better off” under the new system, Hawn told officials.

Councilmember Rigel Robinson said he was heartened to see that the SCU had “become such a major centerpiece” of the city’s work to reimagine public safety. That’s in part because, for him, one goal of the reimagining work must include a reduction in the police footprint, he said.

“Cities all over the country are stepping away from this work,” Robinson said, adding: “I really believe Berkeley has a duty to show what’s possible.”

More efficient medical dispatch system also in the works

One project that has gotten less public attention but is likely to have broad impacts is a one-year analysis underway to study Berkeley’s emergency dispatch center operations related to emergency medical calls.

The project aims to analyze how the communications center approaches medical calls now as far as staffing, workload, training and technology, and how this might be improved to bring it in line with best practices.

After completing the analysis, consultant Federal Engineering will recommend a new medical dispatching model for the city.

Some community members have said they would like to see the dispatch center move to new management as part of the reimagining work: Currently, the Berkeley Police Department oversees the operation. It was not immediately clear from available documents how or if that question will be addressed by the Federal analysis, which did not analyze police calls.

What’s it like inside Berkeley’s 911 dispatch center? Berkeleyside did a “sit-along” to find out.

The analysis will, however, take into account a 2019 assessment by City Auditor Jenny Wong that found the communications center plagued by low morale, chronic short-staffing and a resulting over-reliance on overtime.

The Federal assessment will compare several “priority dispatch” models to see which might be the best fit for Berkeley. The current model sends the same resources to every call and does not involve any kind of prioritization, Assistant Berkeley Fire Chief David McPartland told officials Thursday. That makes it simple but also inefficient, sometimes resulting in delays for callers and more resources than may actually be needed.

Under the current system, a fire engine and ambulance are dispatched to every single medical call in Berkeley. That’s largely because the city has more fire engines than ambulances, so engine teams can get to calls sooner to start rendering aid. (All Berkeley firefighters are also trained as paramedics.) The current arrangement also makes more bodies available to help should the need arise to, say, lift someone who is overweight and needs to be moved.

Going forward, the city is looking closely at an approach called emergency medical dispatching, which relies heavily on scripts and gives dispatchers the training to “provide life-saving instructions to callers for emergencies including but not limited to cardiac arrests, allergic reactions, drownings, stabbings, gunshot wounds and hemorrhaging” while first-responders are heading to the scene, according to a recent staff report.

Right now, Berkeley can transfer callers to Alameda County to get that kind of instruction, but the idea is to bring the service in-house.

The $100,000 Federal contract is slated to run through October but has the option to extend up to five years, for a total cost of $300,000.

“It seems to me that dispatch is the No. 1 issue,” Councilmember Susan Wengraf said Thursday, adding that many analyses over the years have found that it’s a “weak spot in our system.”

The success of the SCU is “completely dependent” on excellent dispatch, she continued, because call-takers will need to make critical decisions about what kind of help people need.

Civilian traffic enforcement still on the table with BerkDOT

The other big idea to come from Berkeley’s efforts to reimagine public safety has been the creation of a new city department or division, dubbed “BerkDOT,” focused on all things transportation.

Berkeley made national headlines with the concept in 2020 due to its goal to civilianize traffic enforcement and limit interactions between armed police officers and motorists.

Proponents of the program say it will be an important piece of the city’s reimagining work because people of color are more likely to become victims of traffic violence and more likely to be stopped by police.

On Thursday, Public Works Director Liam Garland brought council up to speed on the ambitious project, which would require changes to state law to allow not only civilian traffic enforcement but also more automated enforcement of moving violations such as speeding.

Red light violations can be monitored through traffic cameras but still require an officer’s review, making them labor-intensive operations that still rely on police. That could potentially be streamlined by the legislature.

Garland said the city should do what it can to lay the groundwork for state law changes and also make plans for what civilian traffic enforcement might look like in Berkeley.

“That sounds very straightforward and simple. It is not,” he said. The city is seeking consultant support “to help us get there.”

Garland also reminded officials that the city had found support “generally” for shifting traffic stops away from police when it conducted a scientific survey of more than 600 residents last year.

Few other cities of Berkeley’s size have a stand-alone Department of Transportation, Garland told officials. And the existing transportation division in Berkeley already has “more breadth” than most municipal traffic divisions elsewhere, he said.

On Thursday, staff recommended the hiring of an analyst to take a much closer look at data related to the city’s traffic collisions to understand what’s causing them, where they’re happening and how Berkeley might make changes, engineering and otherwise, to reduce them. Council members expressed broad support for that proposal.

BPD now makes fewer traffic stops

The Berkeley Police Department said it has not waited for changes at the state level to do what it can to make inroads into its traffic disparities. Multiple analyses have found that Black motorists are overrepresented in traffic stops in Berkeley: They make up a higher proportion of traffic stops than they do the overall Berkeley population.

Many experts have cautioned against drawing strong conclusions when comparing police stop data to population data — city borders are porous. But a team of academics also said in a 2018 analysis, in results also observed in a 2021 city audit, that Black motorists in Berkeley appeared more likely to be released from a stop without consequence. This could potentially be evidence of unjustified stops and bias, researchers said.

One solution is for police to make fewer traffic stops, particularly for low-level violations. And the city says this is what’s happening.

Interim Berkeley Police Chief Jen Louis began making those changes last year as part of a “three-prong approach” to promote a concept called “fair and impartial policing.” The philosphy is designed to reduce bias, especially implicit bias, through robust training and more equitable policies.

The three-prong approach was the department’s response to recommendations from city officials to cut down on racial disparities in policing.

In May and June of last year, according to a recent city memo, Louis advised officers to focus on three main types of traffic violations: those most likely to result in serious or fatal crashes, such as unsafe speed and red light violations; community reports related to unsafe driving behavior; and “community caretaking” offenses, including seatbelt violations, cellphone use and driving under the influence.

The directives, along with much more robust data collection, have already resulted in fewer police stops overall and more equitable outcomes across races, according to a recent department analysis.

On Thursday night, Louis also told council the department is working to bolster “meaningful community engagement” and develop broader non-enforcement options when police respond.

Louis said her plans include a new community engagement unit, staffed by an officer and a civilian team, as well as a new “data transparency hub” that will make more Berkeley police statistics available in a more accessible, timely way. Several police datasets are already posted on the city’s open data portal, but understanding what they mean requires a basic understanding of data analysis. BPD wants to make it much easier to see the trends.

Louis said the department will also work with other city staff in the coming year to support violence prevention efforts akin to CeaseFire, which is “something our community has never formally seen before.” The chief said this work will “allow for a real change in our community.”

Officials say they hope to do even more

See the 600-page staff report and full agenda from Thursday’s meeting

During public comment, many speakers said the city needs to do more to reduce resources for police and that not enough change has been proposed.

“What does public safety look like? This just seems to be a rearranging of police,” local activist Kelly Hammargren told officials. She said it was an “enormous disappointment” that the city did not seem to be doing more with a long list of community task force recommendations.

A smaller group of callers urged officials to support police and said they were ready for this process to be over. They said they do not want to be part of an experiment, in the form of alternative responses, to which they have not consented.

Thursday’s meeting did not result in any vote — that will be the next step. But it offered a glimps of what’s to come.

Mayor Arreguín told his colleagues he is aiming to hold a special meeting May 5 where he will present his own framework for how to prioritize the city’s reimagining efforts.

Arreguín said he supported many of the ideas put forward by staff and that he’s firmly on the record regarding his support to hire more police: “There’s no question that our staffing levels are way lower than we need.”

He said he also wants to bring more focus onto what the city can do as far as alternatives to law enforcement. His framework will attempt to do just that.

Councilmember Sophie Hahn said she concurred strongly with the mayor’s views on that front: “I am yearning for something more expansive that goes deeper, more transformative in what we do as a city.”

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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...