Councilman Ben Bartlett, Aug. 22, 2017. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Councilman Ben Bartlett sent a series of texts to the police chief after being stopped in Berkeley for running a red light in July to ask the chief to intervene when an officer would not release him, according to materials obtained by Berkeleyside this week through a Public Records Act request.

“I’ve pulled every trick to get your guys raises and to keep you in urban Shield. We need to look after each other better than this.”
—Councilman Bartlett

Last week, Berkeleyside released an audio recording, made by police, of the July 19 traffic stop at Russell Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way at about 12:10 p.m. Bartlett told the officer he was “Breaking my balls [to] give you guys the biggest raise possible,” and asked: “This how you repay me?

Bartlett also told the officer, as he urged her to let him come to the station to deal with the issue later, that he had called her boss, Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood. The two men then exchanged a brief series of text messages during the traffic stop. Last week, Berkeleyside sought those messages, and the city released them Monday.

Bartlett told the chief in the texts that he had “pulled every trick to get your guys raises and to keep you in urban Shield. We need to look after each other better than this.”

He apologized this week and expressed embarrassment for his behavior during the stop — as well as for his texts to the police chief — during a lengthy interview with Berkeleyside on Wednesday evening. Bartlett attributed his behavior to a “deep mixture of trauma and arrogance” and said he is working to make amends.

According to the records provided by the city, on July 19 at 12:12 p.m., right after Bartlett had tried to call the chief, the chief texted back that he was in a meeting and would call when he could. Two minutes later, Bartlett texted again, saying: “This officer won’t let me go.” He had told the officer he was late for Kriss Worthington’s retirement announcement, which had begun at noon outside the city offices on Milvia Street.

The chief asked where they were, and Bartlett immediately answered, “In Berkeley. Can you talk to her.”

The chief asked again for Bartlett’s location. According to the audio recording, Bartlett had to ask Officer Stephanie Cole for the cross streets: “Where are we right now, what street is this?” he asked.

She said they were on Russell just east of Martin Luther King Jr. Way. It’s a high-traffic location by the Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library, across the street from Grove Park. In the audio recording, Bartlett — who represents South Berkeley — can be heard texting during this part of the exchange: “Russel [sic] at MLK,” he wrote to the chief at 12:17 p.m.

The officer gave Bartlett a fix-it ticket for not having his license, and a warning for running the red light and failing to show his insurance.

Twenty minutes after the traffic stop, Bartlett texted the police chief again to let him know he had “just missed Worthingtons [sic] retirement.” He wrote he had “pulled every trick” to seek police raises and let Berkeley officers take part in the Urban Shield tactical exercise. (Several days later, Bartlett voted against allowing BPD to participate in Urban Shield. In texts the night of the vote, he told the chief, of his “no” vote: “All my pastors demanded I vote this way.”)

The two leaders also texted Thursday, Aug. 23, about the July 19 traffic stop. Bartlett told Greenwood he had dropped off an apology card at the station for the officer who had pulled him over. “10-4; thank you,” the chief replied a couple hours later.

In response to Berkeleyside’s Public Records Act request, the city turned over text messages from both Greenwood and Bartlett. The chief’s text messages included all those listed above. The only message Bartlett provided was the “thank you” message from the chief.

In response to Berkeleyside’s reporting last week about the traffic stop, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said Bartlett’s conduct was not appropriate.

“As elected representatives for the people of Berkeley, we have an obligation to uphold a high ethical standard. No one is above the law,” the mayor said. “The actions of Councilmember Bartlett were unprofessional, inappropriate, and not reflective of the Council. I commend Officer Cole on her professionalism in handling the incident.”

A week of apologies

Bartlett apologized on Twitter on Friday morning after Berkeleyside’s release of the traffic stop audio the day before. He also apologized Monday at a meeting with other city officials and city staff. He told Berkeleyside on Wednesday evening that he had been feeling embarrassed and considered skipping the meeting. But he had to be there because other officials were out of town, and the meeting could not have taken place without him.

Right after the meeting began, Bartlett asked for a moment to say a few words. He told those in attendance he loved them and that he was sorry, he said: “It was a ring on my tree. And hopefully they heard it.”

Bartlett said the experience has prompted “soul-searching,” and that he has begun talking to a therapist to figure out what caused him to act the way he did. He said he wants to learn how to communicate better and be in control, and not “make danger when there’s not danger.”

“I wondered why I was doing it … a couple days later and especially when people started yelling about it,” he said. “It was a deep, deep mixture of trauma and arrogance. A potent mixture of trauma and hubris.”

Bartlett said he never wanted to get out of the ticket, only to be able to bring his license to the station to deal with the issue later. He said the stop “triggered a traumatic response” that began with his “rant” to the officer and continued in his texts to the chief: “I just wanted to get away from this moment.”

That’s why he had to ask the officer where they were, he said, despite the fact that he lives nearby and knows the block well: “My head was spinning,” he said. He said he and his therapist had linked the trauma to an incident he had witnessed as a child involving police violence.

Bartlett said he no longer has most of the texts on his phone because, due to his work as an attorney, he is “required to keep a clean slate.” His phone is set to automatically delete texts for that reason, he said, and to stay organized: “I don’t have a lot of stuff on the phone. Otherwise, I can’t keep up with it.”

Bartlett told Berkeleyside he appreciated having the chance, as a result of his response to the ticket and the ensuing publicity, to learn an important life lesson.

“I’m definitely working on becoming a better person,” he said. “I’m grateful that it happened at this level, in a community I know and love, and not down the line.”

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...