Police responded to a shooting report at Dwight Way and Bowditch Street earlier this year. Image: Aviva Kirsten

Berkeley police officers use force, on average, during 32 calls for service each year, Police Chief Andrew Greenwood told city leaders during Berkeley’s first-ever use-of-force report, which was presented to the City Council during its regular meeting Tuesday night.

Berkeley officers generally handle about 77,000 calls for service each year and make 3,000 arrests. Put another way, over the past five years, Berkeley officers have used force approximately once during every 100 arrests.

In 2019, the chief said, police used force — among other examples — after someone broke into a house and held a knife to another person’s throat; when someone tried to take an officer’s holstered gun; when a robbery suspect moved toward officers with a sword he refused to drop; and when someone barricaded themself and tried to set themself on fire. Those incidents, the chief said, are always preceded by de-escalation efforts.

On Tuesday night, the chief’s new use-of-force report followed the annual crime report, which was supposed to take place in March. City officials postponed the crime report repeatedly this year because of COVID-19 and other agenda items they said took priority.

Berkeley police officers fill out a use-of-force report, the chief said, anytime someone has a complaint of pain or a visible injury, or anytime police use a weapon. The use-of-force policy was revised this year and, in the future, will also include anytime an officer points their gun at a suspect. Council voted in July for BPD to present this data annually and made a variety of changes to how the department tracks the statistics in the future.

The most common type of force officers use in Berkeley is physical, meaning their own bodies rather than a weapon, according to the report. Much less often, officers in Berkeley use a baton or pepper spray during an arrest.

In 2019, officers used “less-lethal” weapons that fire projectiles such as bean bag rounds 18 times, according to the report. That was a notable increase over prior years. BPD said that was due to a higher number of arrests involving people who were armed and combative or otherwise refused to comply with orders to drop their weapons or be taken into custody peacefully.

Greenwood said the racial demographics of BPD’s use-of-force incidents largely align with the city’s overall arrest demographics: 50% of the people arrested in Berkeley, and 45% of the individuals involved in use-of-force incidents, are Black; 30% of the arrestees, and 36% of the individuals involved in use-of-force incidents, are white; and 12% of the arrestees, and 9% of the individuals involved in use-of-force incidents, are Hispanic.

Council members asked the chief, in the future, to provide the race of the officers who use force, as well as how many of these incidents involve people in a mental health crisis.

He said he would be able to provide that information going forward, in large part because of a brand new program the department has launched to collect better data about police stops.

New system to shed more light on disparities

Racial disparities in policing have continued to be a concern for the department, the community and city officials alike. Greenwood said officers began collecting much more detailed information, as of Oct. 1, about the circumstances around every police stop.

He said about 400 law enforcement agencies in California will eventually have to collect better stop data, as required by the Racial and Identity Profiling Act, but that Berkeley officers started this work a year ahead of most of them. The public will be able to review this data beginning in November, he said.

Officers can now track and share whether a stop was self-initiated or in response to a call for service; whether an incident is a mental health call; whether someone is known to have a warrant; whether searches lead to the confiscation of evidence such as weapons or drugs; what sort of force was used during a stop, if any; whether race or ethnicity was known prior to a stop; how many years of experience an officer has; and dozens of other factors.

Previously, only six data points were collected during Berkeley police stops, which left many questions unanswered.

One analysis in 2018 found that Black and Hispanic drivers and pedestrians who are stopped by Berkeley police are searched “at much higher rates” than white ones — but were about half as likely to be arrested afterward.

Some community members have said racial profiling is the primary driver of these disparities, which must be addressed. Local activists have said this is clear evidence that police in Berkeley treat people differently because of their race, and that the city must figure out who these officers are and take action to stop this behavior.

Police, meanwhile, have said the situation is much more complicated, and that the disparities are tightly linked to the demographics of Bay Area crime, the fact that much of Berkeley’s crime is committed by people who travel from outside the city to break local laws, and the descriptions provided by people who call 911 to make reports, among other factors. According to one BPD analysis, about 40% of the people who commit crime in Berkeley come from outside the city.

City of residence has been an ongoing bone of contention in the discussion around disparities as activists and some officials have continued to compare the demographics of local police stop data to Berkeley’s population, even after policing experts — including UC Berkeley Professor Jack Glaser — have said it’s the “crudest possible” type of benchmark and should not be overly relied upon. That’s because there’s no guarantee that those who are stopped, searched or arrested by police actually live in Berkeley.

In 2018, the mayor convened a police-community task force that has been meeting since December to come up with a plan to determine the root causes behind policing disparities and make recommendations to reduce them. That task force is slated to provide its suggestions to the City Council in the next few months. (Berkeleyside has been following that process closely and will be reporting on that work when it is complete.)

At one recent task force meeting, Greenwood told participants Berkeley police car stops had dropped by 85% over the past year, going from a few thousand each year to several hundred.

Gunfire in Berkeley has been on the rise since 2018

On Tuesday night, Greenwood told officials that crime reports in Berkeley in 2020 have been relatively flat overall compared with the same period last year. The early months of 2020 saw increased crime reports, but COVID-19 resulted in an extended period of fewer calls for service. Recently, however, activity is ticking up again, he said.

Notably, the police department handled four homicides in 2020 — compared to none in 2018 or 2019. (The University of California Police Department did investigate a fatal shooting in People’s Park last year, but that is not within BPD’s jurisdiction.) Murder charges have been filed in all four of this year’s homicides.

The chief told council that aggravated assaults, which include both physical attacks and shootings, were already up by about 17% during the first eight months of 2020. And there have been at least eight shootings since then, many of which have sent people to the hospital, according to a Berkeleyside analysis. An increase in shootings and gun deaths have been reported in cities around the nation this year.

In 2018, Berkeley had 20 shootings. Last year there were 28. As of this week, Berkeley has had 30 confirmed shootings in 2020 with more than two months to go before the year is over.

According to Berkeleyside’s analysis, at least 10 people have been wounded in shootings this year, in addition to three people who were killed. Last year, three people were wounded in Berkeley shootings and one — the People’s Park incident — was killed.

Councilmember Cheryl Davila, whose district has seen the highest concentration of shootings in 2020, at least a dozen of them, asked the police chief if he could share any information about what was causing the violence.

Greenwood said some — but not all — of the shootings were connected to each other, and that investigators think “there are some interpersonal conflicts” happening. Arrests have been made in about one-third of the cases.

Most of the other year-to-date numbers, Greenwood said, are currently down. Some exceptions include vehicle thefts, which were up 66%: As of August, there had already been 533 vehicle thefts in Berkeley compared to about 500 during all of last year.

A 45% increase in grand thefts, he said has been driven in large part by the nearly 400 catalytic converter thefts that have taken place in Berkeley this year. Toyota owners, particularly owners of the Toyota Prius, have born the brunt of that trend.

Greenwood said pedestrian robberies had been “sharply down” during the initial shelter-in-place order that went into effect in March, but began to rise again over the summer. One robbery category that has increased in 2020 is something called an Estes robbery, he said, where someone uses any amount of force, e.g. pushes a security guard, during a shoplifting incident at a business.

Council members asked the chief if he had any insight into why certain crimes have increased this year. Greenwood noted that, among other factors, most non-violent arrests in Alameda County currently have no bail attached, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, so people are released from custody right away.

“The consequences for doing it right now is, in a sense, almost zero,” Greenwood told officials. And some of the people who are arrested are repeat offenders, which can create a challenging situation for officers, he added.

Larceny reports in 2019 drove crime increase

Earlier in the night, Greenwood provided statistics from 2019 across eight crimes — homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, vehicle theft and arson — that are tracked annually for nearly 20,000 law enforcement agencies across the nation as part of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.

Violent crime reports in Berkeley rose 3% from 2018 to 2019. Nationally they fell by 1%. Property crime reports increased by 17% in Berkeley in 2019. Nationally these reports declined 4.5%, the FBI reported in September.

Berkeley had about 600 violent crimes in 2019, and about 6,300 property crimes.

Pedestrian robberies increased slightly in 2019, but they have remained relatively flat over the past five years, with an average of 250 each year, or about five each week.

In 2019, there were four home-invasion robberies — when someone is home when robbers strike — which was consistent with prior years. Berkeley also had two bank robberies in 2019; the city averages about two a year.

One area of significant increase in 2019, however, was the theft and robbery of laptops from cafés and restaurants. There were 85 in 2019 compared to 61 the prior year, a 39% increase, according to the crime report.

“While the overall robbery numbers only increased slightly in 2019, laptop computer thefts/robberies continued to increase at a higher rate,” according to the report.

Carjackings also saw an uptick, going from 10 in 2018 to 14 in 2019. While still relatively small in number, this was a definite increase from prior years. There were four carjackings in 2015, 11 in 2016, then 10 during each of the following years.

Rape reports were also slightly up, from 65 in 2018 to 70 in 2019. BPD said six of the cases were “stranger rapes.”

Three of the four tracked property crimes decreased in Berkeley from 2018 to 2019, but a significant spike in larceny reports — which include bike thefts, auto burglaries and shoplifting — was large enough to cause the 17% increase for the property crime category overall.

Auto burglary reports, which rose 42% from 2018 to 2019, accounted for a significant portion of the increase, according to police.

In 2018, Berkeley had about 4,000 larceny reports, compared to about 5,000 in 2019. It’s the most frequent type of crime reported in Berkeley.

Officials say police overtime continues to be a problem

Earlier this year, the City Council had also asked police to report on the department’s overtime budget, which has been set at $2.5 million annually for each of the past 10 years. On Tuesday, BPD said that amount does not ever cover its actual expenses.

In 2019, the department’s overtime budget was $7.6 million. Council members pushed back hard and told the chief he needed to get those numbers under control. They said they also needed much more information about what is driving the costs. The chief said he would present a more detailed report to council’s budget committee in the future.

Berkeley police bike patrol officers
Berkeley police bike patrol officers. Photo: BPD

Council members said they were happy to hear Greenwood’s update on BPD’s relaunched bike patrols, which began in September in the downtown area and on Telegraph Avenue after a four-year hiatus.

The chief also said Berkeley has continued to be a leader nationally for its efforts around de-escalation. The Minnesota State Police, he said, have asked BPD for guidance as Minnesota works to reform its approach to law enforcement. BPD has also been asked to share with other agencies about its approach to mental health calls and its longstanding program to team up with city mental health workers when they respond to people in crisis.

Greenwood also advised officials that police staffing has dropped, as of this week, to 165 sworn officers. (At any given time, 10 of those officers are usually out on injury or some other kind of leave, so they are not available to work.) Several other officers will also be leaving in the next month.

Six months ago, BPD had 177 officers and was closing the gap to reach 181 officers, the number previously authorized for the department size under the city budget. But the numbers are now on the decline.

It did not come up Tuesday night, but the Police Review Commission’s annual report was also released recently. The PRC sustained a single instance of misconduct in all of 2019, according to that report. It was for discourtesy. There were no sustained findings of excessive force, discrimination or the other categories tracked by the PRC.

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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...