People are crying out for transparency and justice in the wake of more fatal incidents involving police. The review of police conduct is a topic of discussion nationwide, rising out of the growing concern that unarmed people have been killed by police at alarming rates in the United States, often disproportionately killing Black, Brown or Native people.
There have been 277 people killed by police nationwide this year. Stephon Clark, an unarmed 22-year-old man was shot to death by Sacramento police in his grandparents’ backyard just last month, on March 18. Another killing by police of an unarmed civilian.
Should there be a civilian review of police incidents?
More cities in the country are following what Berkeley was the first to enact, a Police Review Commission in 1973 to ensure that officers’ conduct conformed to community standards. Sacramento’s civilian review board was only started two years ago. Should the Sacramento officers have better training to distinguish the cell phone held by Mr. Clark from a gun? Should there be consequences for turning off the audio on their body cameras? Did the department have appropriate use of force policies?
Whatever form a proposal takes, it would serve the city of Berkeley well to try to implement best practices for our police department. To deny there are problems is to invite more problems. To blindly defend does not increase the trust relationship of an open government, but makes citizens feel ignored, disrespected, invisible, particularly the few left of our rapidly declining Black and Brown residents. An effective, diverse, meaningful civilian oversight panel or commission is needed. It serves a dual purpose of prevention and treatment.
Sure, we are not Oakland or San Francisco, but do we not see the importance of ensuring that Berkeley’s values of professionalism, courtesy and respect are maintained?
A recent draft analysis found racial disparities in Berkeley police officers stopping people of color at much higher rates than white pedestrians and drivers. An effective commission will also have some power to influence (not take over but have an actual voice) on whether certain conduct was appropriate.
As a union member, I respect every employee’s right to due process, but too often we’ve allowed police officers to stand above the law without repercussions. Misconduct unchecked can escalate, and we have then allowed a problem to fester and grow.
I attended many of the public hearings and the presentation of the report to the PRC of the BPD use of force during the December 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Berkeley. I heard PRC members respond with some compassion and concern for getting to the bottom of it, for discovering all the relevant facts — only to be told over and over that they did not have the right to such information.
I observed an alleged “investigation” without the power to actually investigate. I saw an exercise in futility as Cal students, people with disabilities, elders, people of color, journalists and others shared their stories of pain and suffering without a clear response to corrective action, or even a rational explanation justifying the level of force deployed. I heard the police department representative say that they used all of the CS canisters (tear gas) but they didn’t know how much because they did not keep an inventory.
I peacefully marched that night in December 2014. Despite my standing peacefully, I experienced the blow of a police officer’s baton and the throwing of flash grenades by officers at our feet. I watched the news later that night of tear gas shot into a trapped crowd on Telegraph Avenue. I had hoped, through the filing of a PRC complaint, that I could get on the record that a BPD officer lunged forward and punched me in the back with his hard club. I was naively hopeful that the process would yield some sense of transparency and responsive actions by the department.
Instead, in my Board of Inquiry hearing, the officer sat in uniform smirking to my right with his aggressive attorney. Fortunately, I brought a lawyer, but it was still overwhelming. I’ve tried cases in state, federal and tribal court as a lawyer for 25 years in the state of Washington, but I was grilled like I was an accused criminal. My back was still hurting and I had been receiving physical therapy — and found myself depressed and often crying from the profound sense of emotional pain that is hard to describe.
I remember sitting in the BOI hearing with my back hurting and my mind swirling. The officer’s attorney interrogated me and asked that if I was hit and in alleged pain the first night, why I did not take pictures. I told her that maybe bruises showed up on her white skin immediately, but my Black skin was just trying to rest on my couch with ibuprofen and an ice pack. She continued to attack me so much that one commissioner started to walk out. Another commissioner stood up and told the officer’s attorney that such style of questioning was uncalled for and would not be allowed.
Adding insult to injury, the officer sat through my testimony but I was required to leave when he was questioned. Officers did not have body cameras and the burden was on me to prove what I know happened. He apparently denied it, so case closed — by the PRC anyway.
A minister’s head was cracked open at those December 2014 protests, a tourist from LA’s knee was shot and injured by a police projectile weapon, a journalist was clubbed over the head, a Cal student mentee was punched in the ribs with a Billy club, gassed and arrested, and hundreds of students and bystanders including Zellerbach theater goers were tear-gassed. I did not want such a debacle to occur again. I joined a lawsuit in federal court initially captioned Johnson v. City of Berkeley, but ended as Law v. City of Berkeley after one of the plaintiffs settled.
Our federal court case was settled with the inclusion of injunctive relief sought, including improved training, mutual aid protocols, and the recording and reporting of any incident involving the use of force (not done before our case).
The call for reform of the PRC is not new. Over a year ago, residents tried continually to address the deficiencies there that have not been updated for over 40 years. The three people who make up the PRC staff are very nice and helpful within the constraints of a very limited structure.
The PRC process remains broken and limited, so a number of PRC reform related items were properly on the City Council agenda for democratic discussion, but they were placed to the end of the agenda at least four times, and the meeting was adjourned without action each time. As the council’s regular year had ended, a few of us found out that it was possible to call a special meeting with the signatures of council members.
We had a meeting confirmed with council members Jesse Arreguín and Kriss Worthington, and I approached council members Lori Droste and Linda Maio in the City Hall parking lot. Councilman Max Anderson was reached by phone and said he would sign. Councilwoman Droste kindly agreed to meet with us when we got inside. However, the eight or nine of us assembled were not allowed in. As we approached the front door, we were met by three high level city employees who said the building was on lock down. They remained there all day ‘keeping the peace’ I guess. Our threat to security consisted of a former priest, an educator/activist and business owner, a homeless advocate, an Amnesty International volunteer, a couple of undergrad Cal students and a Cal journalism school grad student. Police were posted around the perimeter. It was surreal. Despite our appointments, we were not allowed inside.
The issue of police oversight and accountability is an urgent matter. We should not take chances by having inadequate community review of policies and practices of our law enforcement. Berkeley PD is a human organization and subject to error and should be open to improvement. I refuse to accept the inflammatory rhetoric that it is sabotage or “anti-police” to seek a transparent, accountable, best practices department that is dedicated to protecting and serving all equally. I have not heard any empirical data or even a significant amount of anecdotal evidence that the call for more civilian oversight is the cause for what is reducing our BPD numbers.
Over 80% of our police officers don’t live in Berkeley. I asked a brand new officer if she found affordable housing in Berkeley and she said “no.” I was also told by a BPD officer that we are losing the ability to get some officers because other cities are heavily recruiting them. They are lured with offers including robust police work as detectives or in substantive law enforcement units.
In Berkeley, by not putting more mental health professionals on the street, two-thirds of BPD calls I believe involve a mental health issue (which can be exacerbated by police presence, not calmed). We should free up our officers to investigate crime, arrest domestic violence abusers, violent white supremacists, car thieves and robbers, sexual predators and rapists, etc. I’m glad that we have a group of men and women dedicated to the public’s safety.
Our police department is better by ensuring that Berkeley maintain its highest level of excellence — and we can do so by updating and reforming the first civilian police review board that was created in the nation over 40 years ago.