In June 2011, then Berkeley City Council member Jesse Arreguín was involved in the passage of the city’s budget for fiscal years 2012 and 2013. At the time, 54% of the budget was dedicated to public safety, with the Berkeley Police Department receiving roughly $55 million.
Ten years later, Arreguín played a role in drafting and adopting the city’s fiscal 2022 budget as the city’s mayor. The new budget, adopted June 29, allocated about $78 million toward BPD. For Berkeley Copwatch volunteer Maria Yates, the latest budget did not meet the city’s goals of reimagining public safety.
“We hoped we would see new programs outside of the police department and accordingly, some of the budget would be reallocated into said programs,” Yates said. “Instead, we see what amounts to excuses for providing the police with even more funding without clearly allocating it in the budget.”
Yates said the budget should have reinvested funds in the Berkeley community rather than adding to BPD’s funding.
Nearly a year ago, the city made a commitment to “reimagine the City’s approach to public safety” through a series of referrals and resolutions adopted by City Council, according to the city’s website. One of the resolutions was a goal to reduce BPD’s budget by 50% and redirect the funds toward youth programs, violence prevention programs and mental health services, something Yates said the budget did not accomplish.
As part of another resolution, the city committed to developing a Specialized Care Unit, or SCU, in which trained crisis-response field workers would respond to noncriminal police service calls.
The city’s latest budget earmarked $8 million for the development of the program, with $1.2 million supporting immediate outreach for mental health while the SCU is being fully implemented, according to Andrea Prichett, founding member of Berkeley Copwatch. Prichett said the “pre-SCU response” aims to mitigate the impacts of increased homelessness and the need for mental health services following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The hope is to very soon have an emphasis on services we can provide right away, such as substance abuse and crisis relief, or provide a unique phone number,” Prichett said. “We will direct people in encampments to use it, and as time goes on over the next year, we will be able to increase the range of services provided and the level of expertise being brought.”
Arreguín said the development of the SCU began last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and added that he is committed to launching the program this year. The unit will place an emphasis on responding to noncriminal calls, such as those related to mental health and addiction, that pose no “imminent threat to safety,” Arreguín added.
Prichett, who also serves as a member of the SCU task force, noted that the unit can represent a “structural change” in how the city responds to emergency calls that do not require a police response. Prichett added that a high percentage of calls BPD receives would be better served by trained workers with an expertise on mental health and issues related to homelessness.
One of Prichett’s main hopes for the SCU is that the unit’s focus is not limited to only providing services to the city’s unhoused community, she said.
“We’ve allowed our emergency response to be reduced to a program, a little unit or task force not capable of providing a service,” Prichett said. “This unit will be able to provide some amount of care and transport them to where they need to go to get follow-up care. … If it’s good enough for the people in the (Berkeley) Hills, it’s good enough for our unhoused community.”
The city’s budget also included funding for the new Department of Transportation, which would move responsibilities of traffic enforcement away from BPD, according to a press release from Arreguín’s office.
Yates, however, alleged that the funding for the SCU did not seem secure and noted the need for community accountability.
According to Yates, Berkeley residents deserve a commitment from City Council in addressing the city’s mental health crisis and creating programs focused on community safety.
“Berkeley needs to come up with a new and compassionate way to approach this,” Yates said. “The answers are out there, and it’s not more harassment; it’s not funding more ambassadors and city guards for our parks to further criminalize those who are unhoused or perceived as unhoused.”
The city’s #BerkeleyForAll program aims to develop affordable housing units to address homelessness and substance abuse, according to Arreguín. The program will play a key role in improving community health, the statement adds, particularly as the city increased its police presence at Civic Center Park following multiple drug overdoses in June.
Another element of the city’s approach to reimagining public safety included the creation of the Police Accountability Board in November 2020. The board, which met for the first time July 7, succeeded the city’s Police Review Commission, and the Office of the Director of Police Accountability received more than $1 million in funding in the budget.
“Over the years, it became very clear that we needed to update our system of police accountability in Berkeley to represent 21st century best practices,” Arreguín said at the board’s first meeting. “I really think that this new board and the work of our department presents an opportunity for us to continue our progressive approach to policing and to innovate our approach.”
Amudha Sairam and Eric Rogers contributed to this report.