Last year, after the murder of George Floyd, the city of Berkeley made national headlines when officials announced plans to create a new model for traffic stops that would take police out of the equation.
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State law does not allow civilian traffic enforcement, but Berkeley is working to change that. Last week, Berkeley’s new Reimagining Public Safety Task Force members got an update from city staff about the status of the proposed Department of Transportation (dubbed “BerkDOT”) and had a lengthy discussion about how the program might one day look.
“We know that what’s being done is not working for us. It’s not working from a racial perspective,” said Commissioner Barnali Ghosh at Thursday night’s meeting. “I don’t want to pretend we haven’t known about the issues related to traffic violence or police violence.”
In addition to lobbying the state to allow unarmed traffic enforcement, Berkeley is investigating what it would take to allow automated speed cameras, which are not legal in California either. The city is also looking at changing how speed limits are set to give city staff more discretion in both determining safe speeds and waiving citations.
Berkeley Transportation Division Manager Farid Javandel said the goal of more automated endeavors is to “take the personal interaction out of it.” Javandel said, once legal, the city might consider placing 18-19 speed readers around the city, including in school zones, and would want neighborhood buy-in on enforcement sites.
Javandel told commissioners the goal of a speed camera program would not be to generate profits but, instead, to work toward Berkeley’s Vision Zero goals to end traffic fatalities while also ensuring the city isn’t placing undue economic burdens on those least able to afford tickets: “We want to be careful who we’re catching,” he said.
Staffers said one challenge they have encountered, since Berkeley officials came up with the concept of BerkDOT last year, is the lack of existing models locally, nationally and even internationally.
“There is not a civilian traffic enforcement unit in the United States,” said Liam Garland, Berkeley Public Works director. “That means it’s hard to visualize what exactly that means in Berkeley.”
Berkeley officials and community reformers have said they believe the move to BerkDOT will reduce racial disparities in both which drivers get pulled over by police and what happens when they do: Multiple analyses of traffic stops in Berkeley have shown that Black motorists are more likely to get pulled over than white motorists relative to their population counts in the city. Most drivers of all races get a warning after a stop but, when searched, white motorists are more likely to be arrested than Black or Hispanic ones.
Experts have also said, however, that Berkeley has the lowest policing disparities they have seen across the nation. But police reform activists, officials and other community members alike say police can do much better and that BerkDOT, as a first-in-the-nation concept, is one way to forge ahead to tackle systemic racism.
“All eyes are on Berkeley around this issue, around allowing civilian enforcement of traffic violations,” said Commissioner Liza Lutzker. “All eyes are on us. The advocacy that we need to do is being visionary in how we’re going to do this.”
What exactly is Berkeley’s plan for BerkDOT?
BerkDOT was part of a raft of police reform legislation approved last year by the City Council in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The proposals have been miscast over the past year, often breathlessly, by regional and national news outlets that have repeatedly characterized the changes as a done deal.
But most of the ideas are, in fact, still in the planning stages, with the city working to understand what state laws would need to change to allow the proposed reforms to happen and what the public actually wants to see.
Put another way: Council’s approval of the reform package last year was primarily a commitment to analyze a variety of proposals, perhaps create some pilot programs and have robust community discussions before taking further definitive action.
In addition to BerkDOT, Berkeley is also working to create a new Specialized Care Unit pilot program where clinicians and other people, rather than police, would respond to nonviolent calls involving mental illness and drug-related crises; consider reducing the police budget to increase resources for mental health workers and other social services; and change the way dispatching happens so fewer calls are routed to police in the first place.
Some of the changes have already happened. Over the past few months, the Berkeley Police Department has adopted new, more stringent policies related to both who can be searched during police stops and the department’s use-of-force rules.
Story continues below timeline
In February, the City Council voted to limit the type of “low-level” traffic stops Berkeley police are allowed to do. BPD is now working to come up with a list of what those offenses might be. As of last week, that work is still underway — a proposed list has not been completed — but police have already been advised by top brass to consider the city’s Vision Zero goals when making traffic stops.
Berkeley police reform timeline
|June 9, 2020||City Council permanently bans tear gas use by BPD|
|June 30||Council pares $9 million from police budget|
|July 14||Council approves ‘omnibus motion’ on police reform|
|July 24||Council requires more use-of-force reporting|
|Oct. 21||Police launch more robust data collection about traffic stops|
|Oct. 27||Council votes in favor of Ceasefire violence prevention program|
|Feb 10, 2021||Police adopt more stringent rules about searches|
|Feb. 18||Reimagining Public Safety Task Force starts to meet|
|Feb. 23||Council votes to limit low-level traffic stops|
|March 4||Police Chief Andrew Greenwood steps down|
|March 9||Police adopt new use-of-force policy|
|April 22||Auditor’s office releases calls for service analysis|
|April 27||Council demands more data on “militaristic” police equipment|
|May 20||City launches community survey on police reform|
|June 1||Council to approve new Police Accountability Board members|
On Thursday night, Public Works Director Garland brought commissioners up to speed on the efforts to conceptualize BerkDOT. The idea, he said, is to bring all transportation-related work underway in the city into a single department or division that would oversee everything from traffic engineering, street paving and school crossing guards to parking enforcement, sidewalk and streetlight repairs and enforcement.
To date, the city has identified approximately 100 positions, totaling about $50 million in related staffing costs, that this could impact.
According to Thursday’s staff report, “the referral’s stated purpose was ‘to separate traffic enforcement from the police,’ ‘reduce traffic enforcement as a tool for enhancing traffic safety,’ and to ‘shift traffic enforcement, parking enforcement, crossing guards, and collision response & reporting away from policed officers—reducing the need for police interaction with civilians.'”
According to Garland’s current timeline, the decision on the final structure of BerkDOT would not come before the Berkeley City Council until June 2024. Officials would not discuss the concept of civilianized traffic enforcement until January 2023: “This discussion and deliverable is wholly dependent on state law changes permitting such action,” according to his presentation.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín dropped in on Thursday’s night’s Zoom meeting and told commissioners the city is already lobbying state legislators about amending sections of the vehicle code and, along with Oakland, pushing to allow the automated enforcement of speeding. (The next day, Streetsblog reported that the speed enforcement camera bill had died in committee.)
Red light cameras are already legal in Berkeley, staff noted, but require review by police officers before the issuance of any tickets. The city does not currently have an active red light-camera program, staff said, but is looking at whether the law might be changed to allow civilian staff, rather than police, to do the requisite manual review.
Garland told commissioners that the city is considering three possible approaches to BerkDOT, which could entail setting it up as its own division within the Public Works department; changing the name of the Public Works department and reorganizing it with a new emphasis on transportation; or creating an entirely new city department that would report directly to the city manager.
Garland said staff is also working to come up with a better sense of BerkDOT’s budget needs and said Berkeley could create a new BerkDOT division under the Public Works umbrella as soon as January 2022, if that’s the route officials decide to take, either as an interim step or as a permanent solution.
Garland said an entirely new department, rather than a division, would take more time and would also be the highest-risk, highest-cost option because it would need to be created from scratch.
On Thursday, advocates said they are most in favor of an entirely new department because it would have the clearest mission and also the most autonomy among the options that were presented.
Garland also shared with commissioners a working definition for BerkDOT’s focus: “Ensuring a racial justice lens in transportation policy, programs, and infrastructure would mean that all decisions, procedures, and guidelines that govern transportation in this City would affirmatively work to reduce the burdens of racial inequities and mitigate structural harm put on people of color, and create streets where people are safe, experience belonging, and can thrive.”
Commissioner Ghosh told Garland she was pleased to see that the mission was taking prior stakeholder input into account in considering “all of the ways people might feel unsafe in the city.”
“We cannot be passive,” Ghosh said. “Not one person has all the answers, but together we can figure it out.”
Watch the full Reimagining Public Safety Task Force meeting from May 13 for the discussion on BerkDOT as well as an overview of the work the mayor’s Fair and Impartial Policing Task force did in 2020.