Op-ed: Berkeley Police take a ‘head in the sand’ approach to racial profiling

“The men and women of the Berkeley Police Department do not, have not and will never tolerate discriminatory, bias-based policing. Such discrimination is illegal, it is not our practice and it is not part of our organizational culture,” Meehan said.

If only that were true…

The recent release of data from Berkeley Police Department concerning the numbers of African Americans stopped, cited and searched made big news this week mostly because racial profiling is not supposed to be happening in Berkeley, right? Our police and city officials are so used to parroting the phrase, “one of the best departments in the country” that maybe they haven’t noticed the gross injustice that has taken place right under their noses.

The data was very alarming to most people who considered it. African Americans in Berkeley are six times as likely to be stopped as White people. They are searched 19.1% of the time when they are stopped compared with Whites who are searched only 4% of the time. And, even though African Americans are searched much more often, searches of White people are twice as likely to result in arrest.  Innocent African Americans are being stopped and needlessly searched, based solely on their race. This information, coming from our own police department, should spur our city council into action. This information, coming from our own police department, should spur our city council into action. Those of us who have suspected that racial profiling has been going on for years were listening for Chief Meehan to announce his plan for dealing with this problem. Imagine our disappointment when we heard his response.

When Chief Meehan was interviewed, he said he hadn’t even looked at the data. However, he still managed a number of noteworthy responses. He disputed the validity of the figures, although the data was gathered BY the BPD. He contested our analysis of the data, although what was presented publicly was simply the percentages of stops- no great mathematical feat. He suggested that the data may look skewed because our town is located between Richmond and Oakland and, I guess, he figures that there are lots of African Americans from other towns driving through our town. It is interesting to notice that 2/3 of the African Americans stopped in Berkeley were released with only a warning. In other words, they did nothing wrong. In other words, they were stopped for being Black.

The worst part of Chief Meehan’s response, in my opinion, was in the way that he wrote off the importance of this data. Publicly he mentioned that,

“There are disparities throughout the criminal justice system. The question is: What does it mean?” he (Meehan) asked. “A more careful analysis, I’m sure, will produce a much more enlightened response.”

Sadly, the chief lacks commitment to even doing the most basic analysis, let alone producing “an enlightened response”. He dismissed the significance of these findings with the excuse that everyone else in the criminal justice system is doing it so why should he concern himself?

We sent a follow up Public Records Act request to the department asking for ANY evidence that this data would be analyzed, discussed or considered and a plan created to deal with the possibility that our department was engaged in a pattern of racially based traffic stops. We were told that the department had “no responsive documents” to this request. NOTHING?!

Chief Meehan did say that the city is finalizing a contract with the UCLA-based Center for Policing Equity, which will do its own in-depth analysis of the Berkeley police stop data. Hopefully, the BPD will provide this group the data that was withheld from our group: the data on pedestrian stops. He said in the media that this info (which was part of the initial PRA request) would be provided to us soon. That was days ago. He mentioned a “collaborative relationship” with the groups that held the press conference this week. We have no idea what collaboration he is talking about. We can’t even get a complete response to a legal Public Records Act request, let alone some sort of actual cooperation from them.

Each day that goes by in Berkeley means that more people of color are being unjustly stopped and profiled. How long will he let this situation just fester? How long will the Chief wait for a study to tell him what he already knows?

It is well past the time when the Chief should have created an action plan to reduce disparities in policing in Berkeley. He should already be spearheading a plan to analyze data, educate officers, and establish warning systems and/or discipline for officers or squads that are practicing racially based policing. Instead, he simply denies the problem and kicks the can down the road to an institute that he hopes will “study” the problem and get back to him.

The lack of leadership in Berkeley’s police department is stunning. To deny the existence of structural and interpersonal racism within a police department is to stick your head in the sand. This is Berkeley 2015 not Mississippi 1960. Who are we as a city if we simply allow our police to racially profile people of color because the rest of the criminal justice system is racist? Have we somehow decided that, even though it is illegal, we can just allow it to continue?

Our police department and City Council are responsible for this situation. Discrimination is illegal. It is well established that the city leadership is aware of this problem and yet has taken no corrective action. What can we do to compel this city to take action? Will this be another case of leadership by lawsuit?

Andrea Prichett (Berkeley Copwatch*)

Marcel Jones (UCB Black Student Union and Berkeley Copwatch*)

Rachel Lederman (President, National Lawyers Guild, S.F. Bay Area Chapter*)

Jim Chanin (Local Civil Rights Attorney)

African American/Black Professionals & Community Network (AABPCN)

Sharon Adams (Coalition for Safe Berkeley*)

Diana Bohn (Coalition for Safe Berkeley*)

Elliot Halpern

* for identification purposes only

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