A Berkeley City Council majority approved an expansive package of new programs and positions Thursday night designed to transform public safety in Berkeley while also helping boost police staffing from a historic low.

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

The council vote is a budget referral, meaning it will come back to officials in June for consideration as part of the upcoming budget process.

But if it is fully funded, the package — built on years of work by community members, officials and staff — would represent a major investment in what officials say they hope could result in an entirely new approach to community safety.

The vision involves having civilians respond to many of the calls police now handle — those determined not to need an armed response — as well as the potential creation of a new Department of Community Safety, modeled on a program in Albuquerque, to provide comprehensive oversight of the overhauled system and bring a range of initiatives under one roof. The new umbrella agency would be a first in California, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said this week.

“With crime increasing, don’t we want our police to focus more on gun violence, investigations and community policing?” Arreguín said Thursday night. “That is why we proposed that we explore alternatives to policing.”

See the mayor’s presentation Thursday’s meeting

The reimagining package includes nearly $1 million in estimated consultant costs to help the city continue to analyze several efforts: BerkDOT, a civilian approach to certain types of traffic enforcement ($300,000); the new Department of Community Safety ($250,000); potential changes to Berkeley’s dispatch center ($200,000); and a BPD staffing analysis ($70,000) to help determine how many police officers the city actually needs.

The package also funds an in-depth review of the city’s municipal code, estimated to cost $150,000, that could see Berkeley change its approach to fines and fees in order to create more equitable outcomes.

“The era of balancing our books on the backs of poor people has got to come to an end,” Councilmember Ben Bartlett said.

The reimagining package also includes about $1 million in new city staffing: $480,000 to create a new Office of Race Equity and Diversity; $315,000 for a reimagining project coordinator; and $175,000 for a new Vision Zero staff position to analyze traffic collision trends.

Read more about work underway related to crisis response, BerkDOT and dispatch

In addition, the package envisions nearly $1.6 million in new funding to community organizations, from violence prevention work and a behavioral health-focused crisis response model to efforts to address gender violence and language equity.

This would be in addition to the $14 million the city already spends on community organizations, staff has said.

Arreguín said the package could be funded from salary savings related to vacant police positions, other General Fund dollars and, potentially, some kind of philanthropic support.

The city won’t need to spend all the money at once, he said, because the work will take place in phases over multiple years.

The package also includes about $2.4 million to add police positions as well as civilian staff such as dispatchers and community service officers, which the department says are needed to handle the existing workload and cut down on overtime costs.

“Berkeley is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time,” Arreguín said Thursday night. “We can maintain support for our excellent police department, while building toward a transformative and holistic approach to public safety.”

Initially, officials said they planned to wait until next month to vote on the issue of police staffing. But several council members, who had put forward their own reimagining package, asked for it to be included as part of Thursday’s vote. In response, Arreguín made that funding commitment as an amendment to his original motion.

BPD has about 150 officers and was authorized, until the COVID-19 pandemic, to have 181. During the pandemic, the city froze most municipal hiring and decided to hold 23 officer positions vacant pending the reimagining process. Current staffing levels have made it difficult for BPD to fill patrol beats, which has resulted in overtime costs and other problems, according to a recent city audit.

Councilmember Lori Droste created a matrix to compare both proposals

On Thursday night, officials had two packages before them for consideration: one, from Mayor Arreguín and council members Kate Harrison, Ben Bartlett and Sophie Hahn; and the other, from council members Terry Taplin, Lori Droste, Rashi Kesarwani and Susan Wengraf.

There was substantial overlap between the two packages, but the Taplin item did not include the new Department of Community Safety and totaled about $3 million in new funding asks, compared with what Droste said would add up to $6 million in the mayor’s amended package.

Droste said the item she put forward with Taplin and colleagues also differed from the mayor’s item because it did not support a recommendation for the city to look at further expanding the type of calls to be diverted from police to civilians.

The city has already been working to create a new Specialized Care Unit to respond instead of police to people in crisis and hopes to launch a pilot program later this year through a contract with an as-yet-undetermined community agency. The civilian unit could respond to calls related to everything from concerns about suicidal thoughts and welfare checks to drug overdoses, intoxicated people and indecent exposure. Also on the list for a possible SCU response are suspicious circumstances, disturbances, trespassing and “social disorder.”

The recommendation in the mayor’s package would consider how to expand the list to even more “low-level” offenses.

Council voted on the Taplin package first, but it failed in a 4-5 split, with Councilmember Rigel Robinson voting to support the package put forward by Arreguín and his co-sponsors.

Ultimately, Droste and Kesarwani alone voted against the mayor’s package, citing concerns about whether the city would be able to appropriately staff and fund so many new initiatives.

“I am pleased the mayor incorporated our demand to request to unfreeze all BPD positions, hire a dispatch team and fully fund the Office of Racial Equity. That is a huge victory for our community,” Droste said after the meeting. “I look forward to June to see if we actually can fund everything. I hope we can, but I remain worried.”

Kesarwani said Thursday night that she was “concerned that we have not established what the priority is,” adding: “It feels to me that we have put everything on the table and we want to advance everything.”

Wengraf said she too was concerned about the money, particularly in light of a new city audit released this week that put Berkeley’s unfunded pension and retiree-related liabilities at more than $770 million and unfunded infrastructure needs at $1.2 billion. She ultimately voted in favor of the mayor’s package, however.

Councilmembers Harrison and Hahn said they hoped the new efforts would help stop the cycle of violence, reduce racial disparities and correct a system that overly burdens people who are already struggling to survive.

“We know we need to invest more in crime prevention and social services, and those investments must achieve equitable outcomes to redress often gaping racial disparities,” Hahn told constituents in a prepared statement earlier this week. “Many studies the City produces – on health, education, housing, homelessness, and other measures of social welfare – show a persistent pattern: people of color, in particular African Americans, have the worst outcomes. If we are going to reimagine public safety, we must address these persistent disparities as well.”

Robinson said he believed the mayor’s package, including the Department of Community Safety, could allow for a systemic shift in Berkeley that has the potential to create a clearer path for the “labyrinth of changes” the city is exploring.

“Did we mean a single thing we said in 2020?” Robinson asked. “That’s not an easy question. I think this package is a major step in making good on that commitment.”

Featured photo credit: Pete Rosos

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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...