Members of the Prayer March reach their hands out in prayer for the police department. June 13, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

City officials promised Tuesday night to overhaul what public safety looks like in Berkeley in response to protests that have resonated across the city and nation in recent weeks over officer-involved killings and disparities in policing.

“I am committed to working towards a world where all communities, communities of color especially, have such a wealth of resources that law enforcement as we know it is not necessary,” Councilmember Rigel Robinson said during his remarks from the dais Tuesday night. Widespread demands for police reform that have been in the national headlines for years are finally bearing fruit, he said: “None of these are new ideas. We’ve had this talk as a country. But this time is different. I feel that and I know you can feel too.”

More than 100 community members told the Berkeley City Council during public comment Tuesday night that the city must shift money away from the Berkeley Police Department and spend it on crisis response, homeless services, housing, education and other critical needs. Nearly half of the city’s general fund budget goes toward law enforcement. Many people asked the city to reduce the police budget by half, while others said BPD should be abolished altogether.

“We don’t want to reimagine the police. We want them gone,” one speaker said. Said another: “This is a chance to make a difference for our most vulnerable neighbors.”

Mayor Jesse Arreguín thanked local residents for their thoughtful, impassioned comments, which he said made it clear the old way of doing business must end: “What I heard very clearly was the need to transform our approach to public safety in Berkeley.”

Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood has said often in recent weeks that he too supports significant changes to the type of incidents local officers are expected to handle, including having people other than police respond to non-violent calls involving those experiencing homelessness and people in mental health crises.

On Tuesday night, Councilmember Ben Bartlett brought forward two separate urgency items for his colleagues to consider: one proposal asking for an independent analysis of the types of calls Berkeley police currently handle and another asking to shift money for “non-criminal” police duties to other staff. He said the department needs to do a better job releasing data, particularly around case closure rates, and that systemic change is needed now.

“We live in fear of state violence every time we get in the car,” said Bartlett, who is Black. “No one is having the best outcome here.”

Bartlett’s colleagues expressed support for both of his proposals, which will now be reviewed more closely and considered as part of the city budget process underway.

Officials said a number of significant items related to policing are scheduled to come before the City Council on July 14.

The city is also working to launch a series of conversations to find out how community members, particularly those who are Black and brown, envision public safety in Berkeley. Details have not been announced but Berkeleyside will share them when they are.

The latest reforms follow multiple policy changes city officials approved last week or said they would consider in the interest of public safety, including the creation of an Office of Racial Equity; increased use-of-force reporting requirements; and a ban on tear gas and other chemical agents to control crowds.

In their comments Tuesday, some members of the public continued to demand the resignation of Chief Greenwood following remarks he made during last week’s council meeting when asked about the tools police have to respond to violent demonstrators. Nearly 100 demonstrators took to the streets in a Black Lives Matter march Saturday that also featured those concerns. Council members did not address the possibility of the chief stepping down during their remarks Tuesday.

Agencies around the Bay Area and nation have also been heeding the call to reform law enforcement. On Thursday, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said — among other planned changes relating to campus police — that the university will ban the use of carotid holds; create a team of mental health professionals to serve as first responders for wellness checks; and move police out of Sproul Hall to some other location: “We recognize that this area, so close to the front door and heart of the campus, can be made more welcoming.”

In Berkeley, dozens of community members have continued to show up to one city meeting after another to keep calls for police reform in the spotlight. A range of Black Lives Matter events continue to be organized. Berkeleyside is keeping a running list of those events updated and featured prominently on the homepage.

On Thursday, the mayor released a new statement about the need for reform and said details about the citywide community discussion would be announced in July.

“As someone who is Latino, I have experienced racism throughout my life,” he wrote. “While the impacts of systemic racism are felt across communities of color, we need to recognize the impacts on the African American community go back for generations. We need to right these wrongs to make sure Berkeley is at the forefront of progressive policing and progressive policy. Together, we can create a new vision for safety in our community.”

Note: Shortly after publication, Berkeleyside added additional language from Robinson’s comments Tuesday night to better reflect the context his remarks. The headline has been updated to reflect these changes as well. 

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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...