Capt. Cynthia F. Harris
Among her many accomplishments, Capt. Cynthia F. Harris was the first African-American elected as president of the Berkeley Police Association. Photo: BPD

Late Thursday afternoon Berkeley Police Department communications manager Monique Frost’s voice crackled over the police radio and signed off Capt. Cynthia F. Harris for the last time, a day ahead of her official retirement on Friday after 41 years of service to the department.

In fact, many radio units went on the air to thank Harris for her leadership and guidance and for spearheading change. And the distorted voices were often emotional — Frost told Berkeleyside how Harris had helped her in her career, and over the radio she listed many of the highlights of Harris’ lengthy service, which are legion.

In a male-dominated profession, Harris has broken barriers. She was the first female cop to work for the Drug Task Force, a street unit responsible for handling some of Berkeley’s more dangerous criminals. From 1991 to 1993, the captain was the first African-American elected president of the Berkeley Police Association. And Harris was the first female officer to serve on the Crowd Management Team, which handles Berkeley’s many demonstrations.

Despite her accomplishments and accolades — and there are many, many more — Harris says she didn’t want to be a cop when she was younger.

“Initially, it wasn’t my career of choice,” she said. “Certain circumstances led me here.” When asked about those circumstances, Harris explained: “When I was 17, my mom passed away unexpectedly. I had promised my parents that I would finish school — I had wanted to pursue a law degree, but I just couldn’t do that at the time.”

Harris wanted to try something different when she first started working for the department.

“I decided initially that it would be a stepping stone to something else. I wanted to be of service, but I didn’t think this was going to be the profession.” But, after several years, she realized that being a police officer was “exciting” and that she’d found her career.

“She was somebody who I never wanted to disappoint”

The City Council honored Cynthia Harris in July with a proclamation for her service. Photo: George Perezvelez
The City Council honored Cynthia Harris in July with a proclamation for her service. Photo: George Perezvelez

To hear other Berkeley cops tell it, Harris was a strong leader, fair, and she treated those she worked with like family (hugs and all, when appropriate, according to one officer).

“She was somebody who I never wanted to disappoint,” said Lt. David Reece. “You just want to do everything well, and I made it my job every day to make her look good.” Reece says the reason he enjoyed working for Harris was that she clearly articulated a responsibility or mission — the big picture — and then gave him the space to go out and complete it.

Read a bulletin outlining Harris’ accomplishments from over the years.

Capt. Jennifer Louis described how much institutional knowledge Harris gained over the years, and how valuable that is to the agency. Louis said Harris was her first supervisor, and that she had been “struck by how important it was that she took care of people. She knew everyone’s birthday, and always would bring doughnuts.”

Cynthia Harris has held a number of roles at BPD over the years. Source: BPD
Harris has held a number of roles at BPD over the years. Source: BPD

She was known as a strong personality at the office, and a stylish dresser (“Always dressed to the nines”) — according to several sources Harris is an avid QVC shopper (and Shopping Channel, according to her) — something she says probably will not continue into retirement.

Born and raised in Berkeley — she has since moved — those in the department say her story is one of a “local girl that made good, made a difference.”

The second African-American captain in the BPD — the first being Capt. Stephanie Fleming, who Harris said has been a role model — Harris began her career at age 15 working for the city in a summer job program in 1975 where she was assigned to the police department. From there, Harris volunteered for BPD, then went to work as a police aide until 1984, when she became an officer.

Since 1984, Harris has served in a range of roles: as patrol supervisor, internal affairs sergeant and, since 2007, captain.

The promotion to captain was a significant accomplishment, but not a surprise, according to Police Review Commission Chairman George Perezvelez, who describes Harris as, “a person who not only is committed to her craft, and career, but also committed to the rule of law, and wants justice within justice.”

Perezvelez said Harris has a willingness to listen (though she never shies away from difficult conversations or confrontation when necessary) and to be part of the conversation: “A true interest in reaching compromise,” as he put it. “It’s community-oriented policing.”

And over the years Harris’ commitment to the community, her behavior, has earned the community’s respect.

Changing nature of policing

Over her 41 years in the department Harris said she has observed a gradual shift in how officers are expected to perform their duties. Shortly after becoming a police officer on May 18, 1984, she was assigned to the Drug Task Force — which at the time was in the midst of handling the crack epidemic, now viewed by some as over-hyped hysteria.

Then, police were tasked with “arresting everyone you can” in an attempt to get drug dealers off the street. “We had open-air drug dealing on street corners,” she said.

Of Harris’ work at that time, one source said the assignments were not “soft,” and she made strong felony cases. “She did good police work, without being told to do good police work.”

Officers listened carefully to each other after a drill involving a person with a sword having a mental health crisis. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The nature of police work has changed, says Harris. There’s an emphasis on de-escalation, for example. Here, BPD officers listen to each other after a de-escalation drill held July 14 . Photo: Emilie Raguso
The nature of police work has changed, says Harris. There’s an emphasis on de-escalation, for example. Here, BPD officers listen to each other after a de-escalation drill held July 14 . Photo: Emilie Raguso

But the nature of police work has changed substantially since 1975 (“I think the whole philosophy of the career has changed,” Harris said), and today’s policing emphasizes de-escalation, for example.

“Now, you see instances of it being more than just arresting people,” she said. “We know we can’t arrest our way out of the social problems that exist.”

Officers now are faced with handling a vast range of community encounters, Harris said, and responsible for handling social ills that police have no control over — mental health, being one example. “You have to be able to adapt and be flexible,” she said. “Thinking about law enforcement and its relationship with the community.”

What the future holds

Harris said she’s not exactly sure what she’s planning to do in the long run — but it will likely have something to do with law enforcement: “I just haven’t decided what that’s going to be — maybe training, or participating in the national conversation on policing that’s ongoing.” In the immediate future, Harris plans to travel: Las Vegas, New Orleans, Jamaica.

She’s also planning to donate a portion of her legendary work wardrobe to a women’s re-entry program, because she wants to help women in need appear professional for job interviews. “I’m a clothes horse, and my plan is to go through my closets,” she said.

After 41 years of service, Harris is looking toward the future — and she is pleased she’s able to exit a profession known for its stress and danger with grace.

“It feels good to be able to retire, and I’m glad to be retiring happy, health, and honorably,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated after publication to clarify that Capt. Harris was the second African-American captain in the BPD, not the second African-American woman on the BPD force.

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