Police detain a robbery suspect on Channing Way, near Piedmont Avenue, in Berkeley, on in 2017. Photo: David Yee

Officials voted Tuesday night to create a new yearlong task force to study racial disparities in police stops in Berkeley to consider whether changes should be made to the status quo.

Councilwoman Kate Harrison proposed the formation of the task force, which received unanimous support from the rest of the City Council during a consent calendar vote Tuesday night.

The task force has been charged with creating an “action plan” for the Berkeley Police Department and making recommendations related to BPD’s approach to police stops. According to the item, the city manager will appoint the task force, which will be made up of “representatives of the BPD, Berkeley Police Association, PRC, interested community organizations (particularly of constituencies of color), and academic experts.”

In recent years, communities around the nation have expressed anger and concern about a myriad of statistical findings related to racial disparities in police stops: Studies have found repeatedly that minority drivers are often treated and stopped differently than those who are white. Police agencies have grappled to understand what that means and how best to address it. Academic experts steeped in police stop data have often pointed out that racial disparities are not, in fact, evidence of bias or racial profiling. But many police reform advocates and media reports have quickly drawn the link to profiling, and said the disparities show a serious problem that needs to be fixed.

In 2015, when local activists launched a campaign to highlight racial disparities in Berkeley police stops, then-Police Chief Michael Meehan promised that BPD would be among the first police agencies in the nation to send its data on to the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), an academic group that would undertake a nuanced, deep analysis of the stop data, and make recommendations as a result. The department also began publishing its stop data online at that time to make it available to the public to analyze. The actual CPE report, to the frustration of many in Berkeley, has taken much longer, however. A draft analysis from the group — which was incomplete and flawed, according to BPD officials — was not released until last summer, and that was due only to public pressure. The final version is expected to be available within the next few weeks, BPD has said.

While activists have tied racial disparities in police stops conclusively to police profiling, academics have said those conclusions cannot responsibly be drawn. Members of a local coalition, above, raised the issue of police stop disparities in 2015. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The CPE draft found that “racial disparities in BPD stops and reported use-of-force incidents were low in comparison to many other US police agencies, and much of the observed disparity was attributable to variations in neighborhood crime rates.” Officials have reported, in fact, that the Berkeley Police Department’s disparity rate is the lowest CPE has ever seen.

The analysis offered “abundant reasons for optimism,” its authors said, though there is room to improve. The authors said more analysis should be done to explain why, for example, Asian drivers in Berkeley were five times more likely than white ones to be searched, and why black and Hispanic drivers were more likely to be searched, but less likely to be arrested, than white ones. The draft analysis, Police Chief Andrew Greenwood previously told council last year, did not take into account all the data BPD already collects or its existing policies and training.

Once it got the draft report last year, Berkeley’s volunteer Police Review Commission reviewed it and made a number of recommendations for changes the department should make. Harrison’s proposal asks the city manager to consider the PRC report, the final CPE report, convene the task force and come back in September with a first round of recommendations for BPD.

In addition to the action plan, to be created by the task force by spring 2019, Harrison has also asked the city manager to consider requiring officers to provide written identification, e.g. a business card, to anyone they stop. Harrison said she’s also interested in whether the department might change its approach to asking people whether they are on probation or parole, and “enhance search consent policies” by tell people they can refuse a search when there is no probable cause. She said, in her item, she’d also like to see the department get written consent before any search is conducted.

Other recommendations include improving and expanding the amount of police data reported publicly in the city’s “Open Data” portal. BPD posts arrest and booking logs, and basic information about police calls for service, already. But Harrison says data including “use of force; handcuff, frisked/pat-search use; discovery of contraband; and beat/neighborhood and unit” should also be reported to the public.

Harrison also asked the city manager to take a closer look at the PRC recommendation that local officers “collect data on all BPD detentions including, frisks and summons”; create a new “data dashboard” that would led “BPD leadership … view real-time data about racial disparities and other policing data”; and broaden what she described as the “existing BPD ‘early warning’ system to identify and mitigate issues of bias by department staff for internal performance review and intervention.”

City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley cautioned that any changes to working conditions will trigger a “meet and confer” process with the police union, as required by law. She said it’s going to take some time to review all the recommendations and data associated with the process.

“What we are trying to do is have a very comprehensive look at some very complex issues, and we don’t want to overly promise anything to council at this point,” she told officials Tuesday night. “But we’re going to look at as many things as we possibly can.”

Mayor Jesse Arreguín said it made sense for the city’s manager’s September report to include a look at all the reports and recommendations “in totality.” What will ultimately happen with the recommendations and referrals, however, remains to be seen.

“Some may be able to be implemented, some may not,” he said. “That’s the reason that the very thorough review will be undertaken.”

Councilwoman Sophie Hahn offered several adjustments to the Harrison motion: that the task force not begin its work until the final CPE report is in, that the group take a year, not six months, to put its recommendations together, and that a neutral third-party mediator be hired to run the task force process. All three suggestions were accepted by Harrison and the rest of the council.

Hahn said having a professional mediator, even if it costs the city more money, would result in a process with more legitimacy for everyone involved — even if they’re often on different sides of the police reform debate.

“I would be so delighted to see this group of people sit down in one room together, and I think the opportunities for true dialogue in a neutral environment — where the process is not seen as being run by one party or another — could offer an opportunity that I think we are sorely needing in this community, which is for us all to come together around these policing issues,” Hahn said. “That is why I am suggesting giving it a little more time but getting a lot more out of it, and having an independent expert who knows how to run good process and make sure everybody has a chance to speak, and everyone is actually heard.”

The Berkeley City Council is set to meet Thursday, April 26, for a special meeting to discuss “proposed policies on sidewalks and encampments.” The mayor has asked city manager to bring back an ordinance “codifying regulations for sitting, lying, dogs and objects on sidewalks and in parklets,” as well as a “final encampment response policy.” That meeting, in the Longfellow Middle School auditorium, begins at 6 p.m. and is likely to draw significant community input.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...