Berkeley City Council approves sweeping package to reinvent policing

A majority of the Berkeley City Council on Thursday night approved a sweeping package of new programs and positions designed to transform public safety in Berkeley while helping to increase police numbers from an all-time low.

Berkeleyside Live Coverage Council Highlights: 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 fully funded, the package — built on years of work by community members, managers and staff — would represent a major investment in what officials hope will result in an entirely new approach to community safety. .

The vision involves civilians responding to many of the calls the police are currently handling – those determined not to need an armed response – as well as the potential creation of a new community safety department, modeled after of one program in Albuquerque, to provide comprehensive oversight of the revamped system and consolidate 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 on the rise, don’t we want our police to focus more on gun violence, investigations and community policing?” Arreguín said Thursday night. “That’s why we offered to explore alternatives to policing.”

See the mayor’s presentation Thursday’s session

The reinvention 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 control ($300,000); the new Department of Community Safety ($250,000); potential changes to the Berkeley dispatch center ($200,000); and an analysis of BPD staffing ($70,000) to help determine how many police officers the city really needs.

The package also funds a comprehensive review of the city’s municipal code, estimated at $150,000, which could lead to Berkeley changing its approach to fines and fees to create fairer outcomes.

“The era of balancing your books on the backs of the poor must be coming to an end,” council member Ben Bartlett said.

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

Learn about ongoing work related to Crisis Response, BerkDOT, and Dispatch

In addition, the program provides nearly $1.6 million in new funding for community organizations, ranging from violence prevention work and a behavioral health-focused crisis intervention model to fight against gender-based violence and linguistic equity.

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

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

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

The package also includes about $2.4 million to add police stations as well as civilian staff such as dispatchers and community service officers, which the ministry says are needed to manage the existing workload and reduce overtime costs.

“Berkeley is able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Arreguín said Thursday night. “We can maintain support for our excellent police service, while taking a transformative and holistic approach to public safety. »

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

The BPD has approximately 150 officers and was permitted, until the COVID-19 pandemic, to have 181. During the pandemic, the city froze most municipal hiring and decided to keep 23 officer positions vacant in waiting for the process of reinvention. Current staffing levels have made it difficult for the BPD to fill patrols, leading to overtime costs and other issues, according to a recent city audit.

Councilor Lori Droste create a matrix compare the two proposals

Thursday evening, 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, board members Terry Taplin, Lori Droste, Rashi Kesarwani and Susan Wengraf.

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

Droste said the article she presented with Taplin and her colleagues also differed from the mayor’s article because it did not support a recommendation for the city to consider further expanding the type of calls to be diverted from the police towards civilians.

The city is already working to create a new specialist care unit to respond in place of the 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 wellness checks to drug overdoses, intoxicated persons and indecent exposure. Also on the list for a possible SCU response are suspicious circumstances, disruptions, intrusions and “social disorder”.

The recommendation in the mayor’s kit would examine how to expand the list to even more “low level” offences.

The council initially voted on the Taplin package, but it fell through in a 4–5 split, with council member Rigel Robinson voting to support the package proposed by Arreguín and his co-sponsors.

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

“I am delighted the Mayor has incorporated our request to unfreeze all BPD positions, hire a dispatch team and fully fund the Office of Racial Equity. This is a huge win for our community,” Droste said after the meeting. “I’m looking forward to June to see if we can actually fund it all. Hopefully we can, but I’m still worried.

Kesarwani said on Thursday evening that she was “worried that we haven’t established what the priority is”, adding: “I feel like we have put everything on the table and want to move everything forward.”

Wengraf said she, too, was concerned about money, especially in light of a new city audit published this week that put Berkeley without funding liabilities related to pension plans and retirees at more than $770 million and not funded infrastructure needs at $1.2 billion. However, she ultimately voted in favor of the mayor’s package.

Council members Harrison and Hahn said they hope the new efforts will help end the cycle of violence, reduce racial disparities and fix a system that is too burdensome for people already struggling to survive.

“We know that we need to invest more in crime prevention and social services, and those investments need to yield equitable results to address often gaping racial disparities,” Hahn told voters in a prepared statement earlier this week. “Many studies produced by the city – on health, education, housing, homelessness and other measures of social well-being – show a persistent trend: people of color, especially African Americans , have the worst results. If we are to reinvent public safety, we must also address these persistent disparities. »

Robinson said he believes the mayor’s package, including the Department of Community Safety, could enable systemic change in Berkeley that has the potential to create a clearer path for the “maze of change” the city is exploring. .

“Do we want to say just one thing that we said in 2020?” Robinson asked. “It’s not an easy question. I believe that this package is a major step in achieving this commitment.

Featured photo credit: Pete Rosos

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