Op-ed: It should be possible to give police the tools they need while preserving Berkeley’s values

Late last month, Berkeley police officers responded to an armed and highly dangerous individual in South Berkeley who robbed a laundromat and later attacked an older resident near Sacramento Street. This was a high-stakes operation involving a violent and heartless criminal. While the investigation is ongoing, we’re grateful that no neighbors were hurt in the course of the crime.

Unfortunately, despite following city protocol and being transparent with the media and public, Berkeley police officers were still subjected to armchair political commentary simply for deploying a borrowed, armored vehicle. To be clear, the vehicle used in the operation had a single purpose: preventing bullets from killing or severely injuring Berkeley residents. We think that’s an objective the overwhelming majority of residents would agree is important.

In situations like the one we faced on Sacramento Street, it often becomes necessary to search people’s homes and property. We conducted this search in a manner consistent with individual rights and without causing undue disruption. It is never our preference to disturb people in their own homes, but we sometimes we have to put public safety first.

The criticism of police actions in this case was misguided. But they also speak to broader problems with how outdated city laws hinder our ability to do our jobs. While well-intentioned, several city council decisions over the past several decades have had the effect of tying the hands of the police in volatile operations, and are overdue for a fresh look.

For starters, city policy prevents the police department from having a canine (or K-9) unit, and requires city manager to approve borrowing a dog from another department. The approval was received last month, but we lost 30 minutes with the canine unit as a result of the delay. A bad encounter between a canine and a suspect several decades ago in a drug busting operation was the initial cause for this resource being taken off the table. We do not make excuses for poor training and inhumane treatment of residents, whether a suspect or not. But should one mistake in the distant past inform city policy in 2015?

Rules on the use of helicopters are similarly restrictive. We know the Sacramento Street suspect spent part of his time fleeing on rooftops. But, since 1982, police have been prevented from owning their own helicopters and barred from even using a borrowed helicopter to monitor many active crimes. Any policy surrounding surveillance by air must be carefully crafted to address privacy and noise, but the current approach paints too broad of a brush. The decision to deploy a helicopter should be in the hands of law enforcement professionals, who have the tactical knowledge to assess a situation and balance the needs of public safety with privacy and noise concerns.

The council went down a similar path earlier this year in passing a one-year moratorium on drone technology. This was in spite of the police department making it clear there was no interest in buying drones nor the funds to acquire them, and that any decision later would come before the council for approval. While drone use yields legitimate civil liberties concerns, the risks of emerging technology can and must be addressed through a robust public policy process. The council declined to pursue a policy solution based on evaluating trade-offs and instead moved forward with the blunt instrument of a outright ban.

Dogs, helicopters and drones are not intended for everyday policing. But with the potential for harm to the public, we want to have as many resources at our disposal as we can and as quickly as we can. It’s easy to mentally drift toward potential abuses, or to conclude that these resources inevitably lead to overpolicing or disproportionate policing. But past experience doesn’t support that conclusion. Last December, helicopters would have helped police to better understand the movement of crowds, likely reducing confrontation between police and protestors. Seniors who got lost near an assistant living home for people with Alzheimer’s several years ago could have been easily located with canine assistance. In both cases, these resources would have freed up more officers to remain alert to other problems throughout the city.

Many of the current restrictions were justified by real abuses that should not be repeated. The problem is that once these limitations end up on the books, it can be difficult to remove them, even when circumstances have changed. In some cases, it may not make sense for Berkeley police to make their own purchase, for financial or other reasons. But making it easier to borrow and deploy resources from our neighbors — without losing precious response time — could be a reasonable substitute.

With a proper assessment of current policy, we’re confident we can find solutions that preserve Berkeley’s values while giving police the tools we need to keep neighborhoods safe.

Related:
Berkeley police defend tactics after laundromat robbery (08.03.15)
Robber with ‘silver teeth’ evades Berkeley police (07.27.15)
Council: No drones for Berkeley police for 1 year (03.02.15)
University, Berkeley, Albany reject armored vehicle (07.05.12)

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Chris Stines is President of the Berkeley Police Association.