A protester and police during the protest where smoke bombs were let off. Photo: Gael McKeon

The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to ban tear gas permanently and stop the police use of pepper spray and smoke during demonstrations that take place amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The vote followed hours of public testimony from local residents who demanded that city officials reimagine public safety in Berkeley in the short term and the long term. The officials wholeheartedly agreed.

Councilmember Ben Bartlett said the time is now to make serious changes.

“The era of militarism is over,” he said. “The stakes are our freedom.”

In recent weeks, protesters around the Bay Area and nation have demanded an overhaul to how policing is done in America after George Floyd’s killing by officers in Minneapolis and several other high-profile deaths.

In response, Berkeley officials put forward several emergency proposals Tuesday night: to create an Office of Racial Equity, increase police use-of-force reporting, paint Black Lives Matter in the street, and end the use of chemical agents during demonstrations. All of the proposals were approved.

“Tear gas is banned in warfare and should not be used on our streets or in protests,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín wrote on Twitter on Wednesday morning.

Arreguín had originally proposed a temporary ban on tear gas, pepper spray and smoke canisters to control crowds during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Councilmember Cheryl Davila said Berkeley should ban tear gas outright, in line with many public comments throughout the night. Her colleagues agreed and her motion won unanimous support.

City staff said the ban would likely trigger a “meet-and-confer” process with the Berkeley police union to discuss the change and try to come to an agreement about it. The police contract governs what officers are allowed to do to protect themselves when their lives are threatened, staff said. Changes to that contract cannot be done by city officials alone.

Earlier in the night, one council member asked Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood what “alternative tools” officers can use if their lives are threatened in a violent demonstration and they don’t have tear gas.

Firearms. We can shoot people,” Greenwood replied in a visible moment of frustration and exhaustion. “I don’t mean to be callous. I’m just saying, if you are being attacked with lethal force, if we don’t have less-lethal that can drive it back, then we’re absent a tool. That’s my concern. I’m not trying to be overly dramatic and I apologize.”

He said there are times officers are pinned down and have nowhere to retreat when they must have access to non-lethal tools such as smoke, pepper spray and tear gas to create distance between themselves and people in the crowd attempting to use lethal force. That was the case on a recent Friday night in Oakland, he said, when people threw Molotov cocktails and other items at officers on a skirmish line.

Numerous people called during public comment for Greenwood’s resignation and said his comment was deeply offensive.

Later in the night, Greenwood asked for the chance to apologize again.

“You know it doesn’t reflect my compassion for service,” Greenwood said, choking back tears. “I was asked what are the tools you have, I responded as I did. I’m tired, as are my people.”

I should have said we have nothing else,” he continued. Smoke and gas are the “last tools we have” in violent crowd situations. Greenwood said he was “deeply sorry for the distraction.”

Also on Tuesday night, city officials approved an item from Councilmember Kate Harrison’s office to step up the schedule for use-of-force reporting by police and make a number of other changes in line with the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign that has been gaining widespread traction across the nation.

Berkeley police have been working with the city’s Police Review Commission to expand BPD’s use-of-force reporting, but that effort stalled when all of the city’s commission and committee meetings were canceled because of this year’s public health crisis. The group working on the changes is set to begin meeting again now, however.

In a memo earlier this week, Greenwood outlined what police are already working on and where BPD stands on the 8 Can’t Wait reforms, which relate to chokeholds (banned in Berkeley for decades); de-escalation, which police say is baked into the department’s culture; verbal warnings before shootings; and other policies.

In his memo, Greenwood wrote that Berkeley police get more than 70,000 calls for service each year and averaged 32 uses of force annually from 2015-19. The last BPD shooting was in 2012.

Many members of the public told city officials that the 8 Can’t Wait campaign doesn’t go nearly far enough. Speakers said Berkeley should reduce the police budget significantly and put more money toward housing, social services and other “life-affirming” programs.

“Policing itself is brutality,” one speaker said. The city should reduce the police budget by 50% and take other immediate steps to fix the problems, he said: “Strong communities make police obsolete.”

In her remarks, Davila said Tuesday night’s meeting had the largest attendance on record since the City Council began using Zoom. More than 200 people showed up.

Davila asked the city attorney to explain what it would actually take to disband the Berkeley Police Department; the city attorney said she would have to research the matter and come back with that information.

“We must do all that we can to abolish the police in the way we know they exist right now. We need to step up, be courageous,” said Davila, who is African American. “Black lives really do matter.”

Note: On June 11, Berkeleyside updated the “firearms” quote from Chief Greenwood after reviewing council footage. On June 13, Berkeleyside added a link to the story of a transcript we produced of Greenwood’s remarks before council. 

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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...