Berkeley police at the scene of a traffic collision in April 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

After more than four hours of public comment that began late Tuesday night, Berkeley officials voted early Wednesday morning to change what policing looks like in the city in the months and years to come.

The 3 a.m. vote in favor of an “omnibus motion” on police reforms from Mayor Jesse Arreguín won support from the entire City Council except for Cheryl Davila, who abstained.

“It’s not what the people want,” Davila said. About 100 people spoke during public comment for the meeting and the vast majority of them told council to support a Davila proposal to reduce the police budget by at least 50%. Davila said officials also got 700 emails in support of her item.

The Arreguín item blended five proposals from different council members designed to reshape local policing. They ranged from creating a new Department of Transportation (“BerkDOT”); launching a comprehensive audit of police calls; and creating a robust community process around a variety of public safety reforms.

Under the mayor’s revised item, the city will now move forward with Councilmember Rigel Robinson’s proposal to create BerkDOT “to ensure a racial justice lens in traffic enforcement” and find ways to eliminate or reduce “pretextual stops based on minor traffic violations.”

The city will also now work to develop a pilot program to “re-assign non-criminal police service calls” to a new Specialized Care Unit staffed by a “network of crisis responders.” The city auditor’s office will also take a deep dive into police calls and traffic stops. Those items came from Councilmember Ben Bartlett’s proposal for what he called the George Floyd Community Safety Act.

The mayor’s item also sets in motion a “public safety reimagining process” that will feature “transparent community forums to listen, learn and receive people’s ideas about how policing should be re-imagined and transformed so that communities of color can be safer within their neighborhoods, the City of Berkeley, and trust in the Berkeley Police Department can begin to be rebuilt.”

Narrowing the police focus

As part of the public process, the city will look at what duties might eventually be shifted away from police so officers can focus on “violent and criminal matters” rather than calls about people in mental health crises or living in homeless camps.

That public process will also include, as per Davila’s proposal, consideration of “the goal of reducing the Berkeley Police Department budget by 50%, to be based on the results of requested studies and analysis and achieved through programs such as the Specialized Care Unit.”

Also in line with the Davila item, the city will look at ways to reduce the police budget so more money can be spent on youth and restorative justice programs, housing and homeless services, and mental health services, among other community needs.

During public comment, many community members said the mayor’s item did not go far enough fast enough. One described it as a “pathetic attempt to placate the will of the people at the 11th hour.”

In his remarks, Bartlett tried to allay some of those concerns, saying he saw the omnibus motion as something that would be both sustainable and groundbreaking while creating a model the rest of the country could follow.

“I hate bureaucracy and I hate everything slow,” he said. “These items are meant to go up at the same time as a system.”

As far as the new transportation department, Robinson said he hoped it could change the relationship the public has to policing. He said reform must, however, be done in a way that doesn’t put city employees or first responders in danger. Details will be worked out in the upcoming public safety process.

“I’m committed to digging into this process until we hit gold or until we hit bedrock,” he said.

A desire, from many, for change

Next to the Davila proposal to defund BPD by 50%, the BerkDOT item saw the most praise from community members during public comment.

Traffic enforcement is “a tool of broken policing to just do investigations on disproportionately Black and brown drivers and it endangers everyone,” local resident Darrell Owens told city officials. “The status quo has not kept the public safe: Remove it away from the police into a department focused around equity.”

Throughout the night, the vast majority of public commenters said police should be defunded or abolished, that policing is based on white supremacy and protects only the monied interests, and that police do not make the community safer.

“Defund the police 100% immediately and start by firing the police chief,” said a woman with the Zoom name Isis Feral. She said police are “armed thugs in uniform” who criminalize and brutalize Black and brown people and take away their freedom. They are “the boot boys of the ruling class,” she said.

But a few people also wrote or called to say they have appreciated the longstanding record of restraint and professionalism from the Berkeley Police Department and its chief. Others noted that bias is present in all aspects of society.

“We shouldn’t give up on our police,” said a speaker with the Zoom name Jovi Tseng, “because most of their biases are also our own.” Tseng said that, while “we can definitely have better police… they’re not fundamentally evil.”

Gratitude and praise for Davila

During public comment, speaker after speaker expressed their gratitude for Councilmember Davila. They said she represented the community’s views and called on her colleagues to support her more.

Many said they had been disgusted, earlier in the night, when no other council member supported a late item from Davila to censure the police chief for comments he made in June. As a result, the item could not be considered for Tuesday’s agenda.

The mayor explained to the public that Davila’s item had not met the narrow legal standard for late items, which require both the need for immediate action and that the issue arose after the meeting agenda was posted.

Davila pledged to bring back her item calling for a no-confidence vote in the police chief through the regular council agenda process. She thanked the many community members who made their voices heard Tuesday night and into the early hours Wednesday.

“This is the latest we’ve ever had a council meeting and there’s still 141 people on the line,” Davila said toward the end of the meeting. “Put your fists up high and stand for Black Lives Matter.”

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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...