Berkeley votes to limit low-level traffic stops to reduce policing disparities

Officers will focus on investigative stops and pulling over dangerous drivers rather than “random observations of minor equipment violations,” Police Chief Andrew Greenwood said.

Berkeley police will focus on safety- and investigation-related traffic stops while limiting stops for “low-level” offenses. Photo: Jerome Paulos

Officials voted unanimously Tuesday night to deprioritize traffic stops in Berkeley for “low-level” offenses, such as not wearing a seat belt or having expired registration tags, and focus police efforts instead on driving violations related to traffic safety.

The decision was part of a package of police reform efforts approved Tuesday night to address racial disparities in policing that have been documented in Berkeley and around the nation. A working group convened by Mayor Jesse Arreguín, composed of academics, activists, police and city officials, came up with the reform package over the past year and presented it to the Berkeley City Council during a special meeting Tuesday at 4 p.m.

In addition to emphasizing safety-related traffic stops, the reform package — put forward by Mayor Arreguín and Councilmember Kate Harrison — also reaffirms existing laws and city policies that limit the extent to which race and ethnicity are considered in relation to police investigations, and strengthens the Berkeley Police Department’s existing early warning system to identify officers who may be making problematic stops by more closely tracking the racial breakdown of those stops.

“There is a chasm of mistrust between communities of color and law enforcement,” said Councilmember Terry Taplin, who represents West Berkeley. “Repairing the mistrust is going to take a lot of work.”


Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who represents the Southside neighborhood near the UC Berkeley campus, said the reforms approved Tuesday were at the “heart of reimagining policing” because traffic stops tend to be the most common type of interaction community members have with police.

As part of the reform package, police will now be required to obtain written approval for all consent searches, which has been shown to reduce racial disparities in other cities, and give everyone who is stopped a business card explaining how to share feedback about the interaction; do fewer warrantless searches of people on probation and parole; and commit to regular analyses of stop data with quarterly report-backs to the City Council.

In a series of tweets Tuesday night, Mayor Arreguín said the new measures will free up public safety resources and allow police to focus on priorities like violent crime.

“Communities that are less trusting or fearful of police are less safe because they do not report crimes,” he wrote. “This is a big problem for community safety.”

Police Chief Andrew Greenwood said officers will focus on stopping dangerous drivers who could cause injury or death, along with investigative stops, such as trying to locate robbery suspects, rather than using “random observations of minor equipment violations” to pull people over.

Greenwood said the department has recently assigned more people — including a patrol officer and a researcher who are both trained in data analysis — to help officers emphasize “precision policing” that better responds to crime trends and calls for service.

Police stop data has shown racial disparities

BPD has been posting police stop data on the city’s open data portal for years so that the public can review and analyze it. But it has also been years since any official analysis of that data has been presented to the public.

In 2015, it was community members and local activists who originally raised the alarm about the racial disparities in local police stops, calling for reform and urgent action to address the situation. Three years later, the Berkeley City Council voted to create a task force to study the racial disparities. The mayor’s working group recommendations that were presented Tuesday night were ultimately the result of that decision.

An analysis in 2018 undertaken by the Center for Policing Equity in partnership with the city found that Black and Hispanic drivers and pedestrians stopped by police in Berkeley were searched at much higher rates than white ones but were about half as likely to be arrested afterward. The researchers said this raised questions about whether Berkeley police might reconsider aspects of how they do their work and whether bias may be playing a role.

But researchers also said it was difficult to interpret the data because a key piece of information — whether contraband such as drugs or weapons had been seized during the stop — was not being tracked in Berkeley.

In October 2020, well in advance of a state deadline to do so, the Berkeley Police Department began posting much more detailed information online about its traffic and pedestrian stops, a move the department says will help clarify the dynamics that may be at play during these interactions. The new dataset includes information about contraband and many other aspects of police stops.

An analysis of the new data was not part of the reform package presented Tuesday night but officials said it will be reviewed closely both internally and externally going forward.

Public commenters urge support for reform package

Before the vote, dozens of speakers urged city officials to approve the reform package and take action to address the ongoing racial disparities in police stops.

“These are good steps, but a lot more needs to be done to make sure we have police officers who are respectful of Black and brown people,” said Barbara White, a member of the Berkeley Community Safety Coalition and the Berkeley NAACP.

“We really want police to focus on severe and fatal injuries,” local resident Liza Lutzker told council, of the traffic stops that should be the highest priority. “There are very, very few numbers of traffic violations that result in those.”

Community members also asked for more crisis intervention training for officers, more conversations between police and members of the public to help build community trust, and strong oversight of the reform efforts going forward.

Police union says reforms will make Berkeley less safe

The Berkeley Police Association, the union that represents Berkeley officers, did not speak during Tuesday night’s meeting, but it did issue a statement by email at about 5:45 p.m. saying the package “creates significant safety consequence for citizens and officers while recklessly eroding officer’s discretion to fairly and professionally solve problems on the street.”

In the statement, BPA president Sgt. Darren Kacelek urged the City Council to reject the recommendations.

“These so-called reforms will result in more and more paperwork, reducing police work that keeps our community safe and keeps officers connected with citizens,” Kacelek said. “We want to work with our elected leaders and partners to strengthen the police-community relationship, but it can’t be a one-way street as the process of these recommendations suggest.”

Kacelek said neither patrol officers nor the BPA had been given a seat at the table to help shape the reform proposals. The mayor’s office said the BPA had been invited to attend the working group meetings but had not done so.

Raft of police reform efforts underway in Berkeley

Officials noted that Tuesday night’s reform package was part of a much broader effort underway in Berkeley to reimagine policing. They include the creation of a new Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, which met for the first time last week and is slated to meet monthly, and the creation, through Measure II in November 2020, of a new Police Accountability Board, which will replace the city’s Police Review Commission. Applications for the board are being accepted through March 22.

“This issue is maybe one of the most important issues that confronts us,” Councilmember Susan Wengraf said, of the disparities discussed Tuesday night. “I’m really very grateful to see us moving forward and I’m hoping that, in combination with the reimagining process and our Police Accountability Board, we are going to be making a lot of progress towards justice.”

The city is also working, among a myriad of other police reform efforts, to create a new Specialized Care Unit to respond to mental health calls instead of police and investigating the possibility of a new Department of Transportation (called “BerkDOT”) where civilians would handle traffic enforcement instead of officers. Those efforts are still in development by city staff and will be part of the upcoming work undertaken by the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force.

Officials credited both the working group and the Berkeley Police Department for their care in crafting the reform proposals and thanked Police Chief Andrew Greenwood for being open to change.

“What I heard from you was a very strong commitment to the issues that the task force has raised,” Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, who represents northwest Berkeley, told the chief. “I often say that racism doesn’t start and stop at the doors of the police department. It is something that unfortunately is embedded in every aspect of our society.”

In 2018, the Center for Policing Equity told officials that Berkeley police traffic and pedestrian stops showed the lowest racial disparities in the nation among hundreds of agencies it had studied.

On Tuesday night, Kesarwani said she believed Berkeley could take steps to address the racial disparities, no matter how pervasive they are, and believed the reforms approved Tuesday night would help in that endeavor.

“To the extent that we can have clear, evidence-based criteria,” she said, “I would think that empowers officers and makes it easier for them to do their jobs.”

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.