Berkeley aims to defund police by 50% next year, shift department roles to non-sworn positions

BERKELEY, Calif. (KGO) -- Responding to calls to defund police, the City of Berkeley is moving ahead with a plan that could dramatically cut funding to its force and shift many of the department's traditional responsibilities to non-sworn traffic and social workers.

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The words "Defund BPD" are painted on the sidewalk near police headquarters. It's a message heard loud and clear by the Berkeley City Council, now moving ahead with an aggressive goal of cutting police funding by 50% next year.

In an early morning vote, the council approved a number of reforms and to dramatically cut the department's $70 million budget.

"What we did approve last night were landmark public safety reforms," explained Mayor Jesse Arreguin. "To begin a year-long process to re-imagine public safety and look at shifting responsibilities out of police department to non-sworn positions"

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Sworn officers would no longer make the majority of traffic stops, instead leaving those up to a separate traffic enforcement contingent.

And much of the work now done by police around other community issues would go to social workers.

"Most police calls are for mental health issues. We got a lot of calls around homelessness that don't involve any threats or allegations of violence," said Berkeley City Councilmember Sophie Hahn. "Law enforcement is not the only way that we get people to understand the rules and abide by them."
But some worry, reducing Berkeley's number of sworn officers could put citizens in jeopardy and they worry an unarmed traffic enforcement person may not be equipped to handle a situation, if it turns violent.

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A spokesman says the Berkeley Police Department will take a wait and see approach.

"It's too soon to determine how these referrals will inform how we provide police services to the community," said BPD Public Information Officer Byron White in a written statement. "The department will continue its commitment to public safety and evaluate calls for service that perhaps another city service could handle safely instead."

Mayor Arreguin believes shifting responses to non-violent incidents away from sworn officers might actually free them up, to address more serious crimes.

The council directed staff to study existing data on police stops and emergency calls and to come up with recommendations for how to staff up departments, like social services, outside of the police department.

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