By Mara Van Ells
Members of the Police Review Commission expressed concern Wednesday night over policy complaints filed by two residents of the 2100 block of McKinley Avenue describing how their street was blocked off, taken over, and used as a police staging area for five days in early December during demonstrations in Berkeley.
The controversial take-over prompted Police Chief Michael Meehan to attend the PRC meeting and pledge that his department would develop a policy to ensure that a similar situation doesn’t happen again.
Read complete Berkeley protests coverage on Berkeleyside.
“We’ve been looking at a lot of different strategies on how we can make sure this does not happen again in the future,” said Meehan.
The commissioners did not take any position on the incident, but will discuss the matter again at its Jan. 28 meeting. Alison Bernstein, the chair of the Police Review Commission, said she wanted more information before the commission makes a recommendation to city council. Meehan said he will return for the next meeting.
On Dec. 4, signs went up on McKinley Avenue stating that no parking would be allowed from 12 p.m. on Dec. 6 until midnight. Robin McDonnell, one of two neighbors who filed a formal policy complaint, said she assumed an event was happening in the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. Police didn’t communicate to neighbors that their street was to be used as a staging area for Berkeley police and mutual aid from other police departments during the Berkeley protests, she said.
McDonnell, who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years, described the situation as “horrifying.”
“I was in a war zone and treated so uncivilly,” she said.
She described how residents were regarded as “hostile enemies” of the police, who demanded to see neighbors’ identification before being allowed onto the street. Cars were towed without 72 hours of notice.
“Nobody planned for a bathroom for them so they urinated on our street. They left their pizza boxes there,” she said.
The police area coordinator for the neighborhood didn’t respond all week to phone calls and emails requesting information, she said.
On Dec. 11, Berkeley Police Capt. Andrew Greenwood met with several neighbors and listened to their concerns. Things improved on Dec. 13, after police put up no parking signs in anticipation that protests in Oakland might come toward Berkeley. This time, they emailed neighbors to let them know the situation beforehand and met with them outside their homes. Residents of McKinley Avenue were allowed to park on the west side of the street, a portable toilet was erected for police to use and officers at the barricades were instructed to ask for the addresses of people who were coming and going, but not to demand to see identification.
McDonnell said she appreciated the meeting and police were polite and considerate following the meeting: “It was night and day,” she said.
Still, McDonnell said, she wants such operations to be codified so that a similar situation doesn’t happen again.
Zoe Kalkanis, a resident of Addison Street, another street next to the police station, said her block wasn’t used as an official staging area but it was blocked off. She emphasized that after residents were able to communicate with police, things improved.
Kalkanis requested a better way for residents to communicate with police and a clear policy.
“I know [the Berkeley Police Department] are working on these issues. But I also know that staff changes and we’re depending on personal relationships and I don’t feel ultimately that that’s the best way to approach this,” she said.
Councilman Jesse Arreguín, whose district includes the area, urged the commission to work with the police department to adopt a policy. He said he understood that the situation was unprecedented but that McKinley was an “inappropriate” location for a staging area.
“I think we should have better communication with residents moving forward because this kind of situation just can’t happen in the future,” he said.
Commissioner Ann Rogers said the residents’ experiences sounded “just like a nightmare.” She told Chief Meehan that she understood police needed to act quickly but there was a “stunning lack” of communication to residents.
“I’m really sorry that you all went through that,” she told the assembled neighbors.
Meehan acknowledged that the police didn’t communicate with neighbors.
He offered to speak at the next commission meeting about what the department is doing to implement policy and prevent similar situations from happening again. He told the neighbors that he believes the department’s ideas will address most, if not all, of their concerns.
“If there’s something we’re missing, we’d want to know so we can maybe fine tune it,” he said. “We want to be good neighbors.”
Bernstein asked Police Review Commission Officer Katherine Lee to find general orders regarding staging and present them at the next commission meeting. She also asked Lee to find out whether there are rules regarding when police conduct is impactful to residences—for example, if there is a time limitation to such impact.
She also wanted to know if the police department needs to get approval from a higher authority in order to plan something that would impact residents in a non-emergency situation,.
While Bernstein said she didn’t want to bind enforcement’s hands in emergency situations, she thought there need to be discussion and “careful thinking” about staging.
“Obviously, there needs to be a big caveat for exigent circumstances,” she said. “If you’ve got a hostage situation and you need a staging area… you’re not going to ask the department to step away from its vital mission and check in with everybody,” she said. “It would be nice if, after you set up the staging area, you kind of let them know to the extent you can.”
“Unfortunately, a lot of what the department does is have to respond very quickly to very volatile situations and frequently that requires staging,” she said.
Rogers said it would be helpful for the department to have a staging plan in place and for residents to have an understanding of what that plan is.
“We need to be mindful of the fact that we have a police department in an urban area in a neighborhood,” she said.
McDonnell said she’d like a staging policy in writing. “I think this is going to happen again. I can’t imagine that we won’t have a riot of some sort in the future,” she said.
Mara Van Ells is an aspiring digital journalist who is pursuing a master’s degree at UC Berkeley’s graduate School of Journalism. Van Ells lives on McKinley Avenue, the street behind the Berkeley Police Department. She identified herself as a neighbor but also as a journalist who might do a story when speaking with officers and neighbors for this story. She attended the community meeting to take notes as a journalist rather than as a neighbor expressing her own opinion.
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