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‘Police playground:’ Opposition grows to $44 million regional training facility and HQ in San Pablo

‘Police playground:’ Opposition grows to $44 million regional training facility and HQ in San Pablo

SAN PABLO — A $43.6 million law enforcement regional training center and new police headquarters is coming to San Pablo, a largely low-income, Hispanic and aging enclave in West Contra Costa County home to roughly 31,000 residents and 62 sworn officers — and not everyone is happy about it.

According to the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office, San Pablo is the most policed city in the county, relative to its population. Now after quietly slogging through more than three years of planning, construction on this project — one of the largest in city history — is scheduled to start in October, despite growing controversy and public protest.

The proposed two-story, 42,000-square-foot facility is slated for a vacant city-owned lot on Gateway Avenue, replacing the city’s current police department headquarters.

The development promises to attract law enforcement agencies from across the Bay Area and alternative public safety organizations, such as Contra Costa County’s mental health crisis programs. It features a host of onsite amenities, including a drone work area, virtual reality simulator, training classrooms, fitness rooms, kennels for police dogs and a 20-lane indoor shooting range.

Local police praise the new complex for its expected ability to provide “progressive, modern” trainings, which they say will attract new, much-needed business revenue to cash-strapped San Pablo. But opponents argue that the project squanders millions of dollars that could help reduce crime by funding other community-based initiatives, rather than further militarizing a city that’s already over-policed.

“If we’re trying to improve public safety and reduce crime, one of the greatest ways to ensure that is to invest in the people of San Pablo — making sure that they have secure housing, secure jobs, healthcare and social services,” said James Burch, with Oakland’s Anti Police-Terror Project, an activist organization that works to reduce community reliance on local law enforcement agencies.

Burch dubbed the project a “$43 million police playground.”

On Saturday, organizers of an East Bay-based Stop Cop Campus coalition announced they will rally at Kennedy Plaza at 3 p.m., before marching along San Pablo Avenue toward the project site. Small groups of protesters — primarily made up of young people of color, including some connected to Richmond High School — started marching and posting criticism of the project online in July. Pushback against the development has grown since then, especially as social media connected local organizers with activists across the country.

Similarities are already being drawn between San Pablo’s facility and the $90 million, 85-acre “Cop City” development in Atlanta, Georgia. While attention to these kinds of police campuses is still growing, Burch said many local community members are wary of internal training programs. Specifically, he cited Urban Shield, a globally known SWAT training program, first responder demonstration and weapons expo organized by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, which attracted groups like the Oath Keepers and featured vendors promoting violent, racist slogans prior to being discontinued in 2018.

“This type of investment increases the culture of violence that leads to law enforcement using their weapons to maim and kill civilians,” Burch said.

San Pablo Police Capt. Brian Bubar said the project is “first and foremost” an attempt to house all department operations under one roof after it outgrew its current space.

While statistics of violent and property crimes in San Pablo have consistently trended downward in the last decade, he said the department is responding to the community’s “huge concern, feeling and sensation that crime is going up.” Bebar said the department is open to dialogue about police militarization, but local perspectives will continue driving the department’s decisions.

“Our community has explicitly told us and our city leadership that they do not want to take part in any defunding of the police department,” Bebar said, pointing to a 2022 city poll that found 81% support for a new police department building, despite the costs. “We want to make sure that we’re preparing them to be ready to make those decisions in the community. I think we’re doing a good job now, but this facility will make it easier, more cost effective and we’ll be able to deliver that training on a much more frequent basis.”

A groundbreaking planned in early August was delayed by “operational concerns and logistics,” according to remarks from City Manager Matt Rodriguez during a City Council meeting last month. He did not elaborate further, and it’s unclear whether any ceremony will be rescheduled, especially amid ongoing pushback.

In February, the San Pablo City Council approved a $38.4M contract with Overaa Construction Co. to oversee this development, located on 2.27 acres directly across the street from San Pablo City Hall. However, the city ultimately approved three total funding sources to cover projected shortfalls and contingency costs — bumping the budget up to $43.6 million.

In total, the city will tap more than $28.8 million from lease revenue bonds, $4.3 million from American Rescue Act funds received for COVID-19 relief and $10.4 million from the city’s general fund reserves.

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That price tag has already drawn scrutiny, especially in an enclave where the median household income is $67,300, which would classify a family of four as “very-low income” in Contra Costa County. The project cost is equal to 65% of the roughly $66 million that the city of San Pablo spent last year.

Current construction timelines estimate that the new police HQ will be completed by late 2025.

San Pablo’s plan is in lockstep with other developments across the Bay Area and country.

The city tapped project management firm Mack5, which boasts a “police and law enforcement facility design expert” and has helped tackle several other multi-million-dollar public safety projects, stretching from Kensington and Emeryville, to San Rafael and Dublin.

Additionally, several police departments across the U.S. have also recently invested in training complexes since 2020, including a $330 million project in Baltimore, $170 million facility in Chicago and $52 million development in Sioux Falls.