Police Reform is Possible – And Crucial

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by Carol Denney. Originally published in the Berkeley Daily Planet

Now and then you go to a city meeting and walk out afterward thanking your stars you were there. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens; crucial information presented clearly, well-informed speakers treating the crowd and each other with respect, interested, well-informed attendees making powerful observations and asking powerful questions. And a clear map toward a more just world. 

Billed as a Police Reform Town Hall, the gathering at the North Berkeley Senior Center came about a week after a city hall effort at police reform was marred by an unwillingness to address obvious racial disparities in policing, a disparity which is easy to see in the numbers reluctantly provided by the Berkeley Police Department. Mayor Jesse Arreguin and Sophie Hahn, among other things, wanted the word “racial” removed from the language. Nothing says “I want to know more” like removing the word “racial” from an effort to track racial discrimination in policing.

Councilmember Kate Harrison, the first speaker, stated plainly that what is missing is the voices of people who have the real life experiences of the police.

“Protecting public safety is an important goal, but not our only goal,” stated Harrison, saying that protecting individual rights is equally important. She cited the UCLA study on use of force and stop data with respect to racial disparity, saying that there is still a lot we don’t know. Apparently there is a lack of reporting on use of force unless a complaint is filed or a weapon is used.

“We need that data,” stated Harrison. “That’s one of my first goals.” She said a report is expected early next year which she hoped would be more helpful; additional information may clarify and refine the data about the racial disparity obvious in the numbers so far.

Harrison says “part of this is because we see the police as separate,” pointing out that they’re not. “The council is responsible for setting policy of the police.”

George Lippman of both the Police Review Commission and the Peace and Justice Commission followed up with one of the most frank assessments of the current state of police accountability I’ve ever heard.

“You can pass a lot of great policies,” he said, “but if they aren’t followed there’s not a lot you can do.” He painted the broad picture of police review, beginning with the Black Panther Party in Oakland as well as additional efforts, such as Berkeley’s creation of its Police Review Commission (PRC), once considered one of the strongest in the nation. His tone was almost apologetic as he stated plainly that in his experience, feedback from the black community is that they experience the police as a hostile force in some respects; “Attorneys tell their clients ‘don’t even go to the PRC.'”

For the first time in my experience I heard a Police Review Commissioner describe in detail the traumatizing experience of going through the complaint process – its confounding deadlines, its secrecy, the improbability of effecting change through its use, and the way the deck is stacked against the complainant. “The current council (he excepted Councilmember Harrison) talks a good game,” he stated, but pointed out that a majority of the council had passed additional police powers, some of them of questionable constitutionality, without even bothering to confer with the PRC just this last summer.

Lippman then talked about options, such as a charter amendment, to strengthen the PRC and amend some of its weaknesses, and some short-term reforms coming to council in the next few weeks ( Tuesday, Nov. 14, and Tuesday, Dec. 5), urging people to come to the city council to support the efforts.

Tracy Rosenberg, Executive Director of Media Alliance, spoke next, a voice many of us remember from the community’s successful uprising against Oakland’s effort to situate a surveillance center in its downtown, a plan which seemed a fait accompli in 2012 but was halted by popular resistance.

“When they talk about transparency, it pretty much becomes just that you know when they’re lying to you. Which is pretty much all the time,” she said of the prolonged struggle she’s navigated along with community groups such as the NAACP and the ACLU.

All three voices urged the crowd to show up this Tuesday, November 14th, for items #24., “Refer to the Berkeley Police Department to Address Disparate Racial Treatment and Implement Policy and Practice Reforms“, and #25., “Referral to Police Review Commission to Write a Charter Amendment Ballot Measure.” Community voices, after all, created Berkeley’s admittedly imperfect Police Review Commission, stopped the surveillance center in Oakland, and can insist that racial disparities evident in current Berkeley Police practices be addressed plainly rather than at an oblique angle.[1]

This crowd was fired up for change but deeply interested in the history, the legal foundation, and the practical. Councilmember Harrison agreed to make a request for a data analyst for the PRC, apparently a volunteer role at present. One audience member noted and George Lippman agreed that if the council refused the charter amendment to address PRC weaknesses it would only take 12,000 signatures to put it on the ballot. Ann Ginger of the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute reminded the crowd of the power of a report to the United Nations in this year of requirement. Local activist Gene Bernardi discussed the militarization of the police, and Councilmember Harrison echoed her concern, saying “I think there’s a connection between how policing works locally and these national programs.”

Winston Burton of the NAACP asked who wanted the word “racial” removed from the council’s October 31st’s wording. Councilmember Harrison stated that Mayor Jesse Arreguin and Sophie Hahn had done so, preparing a watered-down version of her original legislation just Tuesday afternoon, which had the votes to pass. She did her best to be generous while giving their rationale for doing so, but agreed that it “would be helpful” to call their offices.

“I’m really concerned about the use of force on homeless people,” stated a young woman incensed by the deregulation of the use of pepper spray. George Lippman let her know that the PRC had immediately responded to the deregulation by sending a letter to the council demanding that the original prohibition on the use of pepper spray in crowds be restored, adding that one Berkeley police officer had told him “our aim is not that good.”

Sharon Maldonado recounted seeing a homeless man sleeping in a doorway rousted by a the Downtown Berkeley Association’s green-shirted “ambassadors”, and that when a police officer showed up to force the man to move she was treated in an intimidating way for questioning the situation.

Andrea Pritchett of the PRC pointed out that the Berkeley Police don’t appear to have goals against which to measure progress. She said the PRC asked to see the police budget and were delayed for months, well beyond the council’s actual budget process, so that the information, once provided, was for all practical purposes useless. “Metrics for progress, used in ordinary management, seem to be unknown.”

This, among many others, is not just true, it intimates a possibility. What if our police department had measurable goals? We could certainly, from year to year, enhance our ideas of public safety to include an experience of respect from the police, a reduction in disproportionate stops of people of color, etc., metrics at least as measurable as car break-ins.

Mansour Ideen of the Berkeley NAACP recounted attending a PRC hearing on a young man’s illegal search and having had to leave the room entirely, along with the complainant, at a certain point in the hearing. This absurdity is the new protocol in response to the August 29, 2006, California Supreme Court decision in Copley Press V. Superior Court which held that records of an administrative appeal of sustained misconduct charges are confidential and may not be disclosed to the public, preventing the public from having any information about the extent of officers’ discipline.

Councilmember Harrison, in response to an audience member’s lament about Copley’s state-level interference with local reforms, said “it is our firm belief that more is permissible under that law…” She stated that a “preponderance of the evidence” which is the civil suit standard, should be used instead of the more restrictive “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard in current use. “The City Manager could make that change,” she stated. “What I’m looking for right now is more legal evidence.”

This, the intersection of the Copley decision with local police reform, has always been treated as a brick wall between local reform efforts and any possibility of change or improvement. But Councilmember Harrison is echoing other voices over the years. As policing swings more toward militarization, as more communities as dismayed by the lack of attention to community issues of discrimination in favor of weaponry, gadgets, and a tendency to treat citizens like an enemy force, the Copley decision which seems to force police review into a black bag needs to come under scrutiny.

Councilmember Harrison noted that what BART did was set up a police auditor office which is independent, and which can review all records and make recommendations. “I’m looking for structural solutions,” she said.

Commissioner Lippman agreed. “Some things we can’t affect because of state law,” he said. “But some are weaknesses of our own making.” He added that the PRC commissioners sign a non-disclosure agreement, that fifteen years ago this information was routinely shared, and that a charter amendment written by the PRC in the upcoming ordinance proposed for Tuesday, November 14th, would be the way to start. He noted that the police had been forced to disclose the disparity information and that “the PRC is going forward with the analysis.”

James McFadden, a local professor, recommended using budgetary pressure to gain “leverage” over the City Manager. Michael Diehl, a homeless citizen once employed by BOSS to do street outreach who now works with Street Spirit newspaper, expressed concern about the repeated right-wing rallies disturbing the peace for vulnerable populations.

Councilmember Harrison stated that she is on a subcommittee with Councilmembers Davila (who was present) and Wengraf regarding NICRIC, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, often called the “fusion” center, which has a goal of presenting a “more integrated data picture” and is tasked with producing “suspicious activity reports.”

Director Rosenberg commented that the problem with having officers “double-sworn”, in other words having technical allegiance to two separate agencies, is that they can be taking direct orders from another agency and “we wouldn’t know.”

Councilmember Harrison added that “the vendors have a very large role” in NICRIC training, and that she was worried about that connection. “We’re handing over a lot of our training to vendors.” She told the story of one of the training exercises, a hypothetical setting which required the police to go recapture a dam from Hezbollah. “The daily reality we need to prepare for is earthquakes and fires,” she said, saying that she supports training but questions the value of such an exercise, and that such training has no need to happen under the umbrella of Urban Shield, a remark which earned applause.

Commission Lippman urged the town hall attendees to prepare for “a protracted campaign” to change the PRC. Director Rosenberg agreed, and ended the evening with this provocative observation; “the challenge with police reform is that it’s piecemeal. What links it together is getting community control back. You have to challenge what ‘public safety’ really is…” by “unpacking the definition of public safety.”

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