People around this country and the world were surprised, shocked, and relieved at the guilty verdict that finally found a policeman accountable for murder. The killing of George Floyd has led to an upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement and intense scrutiny of the ways that Black and brown citizens are policed. The culture that has allowed police to kill unarmed people of color with impunity is finally being challenged. There are cries in every city to reimagine policing and what genuine public safety would mean.
I live in central Berkeley, but five days a week I drive to residential areas in North Berkeley and the hills to walk several miles in steeper terrain. I am a white person who is never afraid to walk outside of my neighborhood, never afraid that someone will call the police because I look suspicious. Every day, I pass dozens of Black Lives Matter signs.
It’s great that we have signs on our homes, but our actions need to match our signs. Nothing matters more in terms of keeping Black and brown people alive than holding police accountable for their conduct, their use of force, and their weaponry.
On Tuesday, the City Council will vote on Councilmember Kate Harrison’s Police Equipment and Community Safety Ordinance. This ordinance requires the police department to report whenever it uses or purchases militarized equipment such as armored personnel carriers, battering rams, firearms of .50 caliber or over, projectile launchers, rubber bullets, flash grenades, and long-range acoustic devices (LRADs), which scientists have shown can cause “horrible nauseating pain across the entire body” and permanent hearing damage. The police would have to report how and where it used the militarized equipment. The proposed ordinance does not ban any equipment, but it will require that the council approve purchases of the militarized equipment.
“The acquisition and use of certain police equipment and weapons pose grave threats to civil liberties and public health and safety,” an introduction to the proposed ordinance reads. “It is in the public interest that acquisition of any police equipment with the potential to impose physical or psychological harm to community members should be thoroughly reviewed by the Police Accountability Board (PAB) or the Police Review Commission until such time that the new board is established, and Council.”
These new reporting requirements enhance other improvements following Harrison’s July legislation updating the Berkeley police department’s Use of Force Policy. Currently, the BPD must file an annual report on when Berkeley police officers use force, including when they remove their guns from their holsters. But the policy does not include other critical information required of the kinds of weapons used and the locations where weapons were deployed. Harrison’s new ordinance will close that gap.
Her ordinance is also common sense. For example, it does not require police to report when officers carry pepper spray on their belts. A report must be made, however, if that spray is taken off the belt, even if it is not deployed. While the proposed ordinance requires a report when a Humvee or armored vehicle is used, it does not require reporting for the use of ordinary armored police cars.
We can make a real difference by calling or emailing the mayor and our City Council members and tell them to fully support this ordinance for increased police accountability. Now is the time for our actions to match our signs!