Op-ed: Berkeley police do not tolerate discrimination

Recently, several groups have alleged that, due to racial disparity between Berkeley Police stop data and the resident census population, the only possible explanation was racial profiling by Berkeley Police. I respectfully disagree.

Racial disparity and implicit bias are complex and wide-ranging national issues. Disparity affects many of our society’s institutions including health care, education, finance, the legal system and others. We share our community’s concern about disparity and inequity.

The Constitution, state and federal law and department policy specifically prohibit the biased use of race and other demographics by police. The Berkeley Police Department does not, has 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.

The Berkeley Police Department has not shied away from difficult issues or our progressive roots. We recognize that all humans have biases and we have been at the forefront of addressing the challenges of explicit and implicit bias. Few agencies have done as much as the Berkeley Police Department to understand and address this issue. As one of the most representatively diverse police departments in the United States we have strived to be at the forefront of fair and impartial policing and are addressing it through a comprehensive effort including stringent hiring standards, modern policy, expert training, strong supervision and community partnerships. In collaboration with the NAACP, ACLU and Police Review Commission, we implemented a model Fair and Impartial Policing policy backed with state of the art training.

We are one of the first agencies to conduct department-wide training in Fair and Impartial Policing. This training is designed to develop an understanding of the science of bias, and to make all of our employees aware of how implicit biases exist in all human beings, including police officers, and how they can affect decision-making.

In our desire to be open and transparent with our community, the Berkeley Police Department voluntarily collects and publicly shares demographic stop data.  Collection of data can assist and contribute to the national discussion, focus our attention internally on implicit bias and increase trust by making policing in Berkeley more transparent to the community.

Review of police stop data throughout the United States typically shows differences between stops and resident census populations. This disparity does not automatically equate to deliberate discrimination, racial profiling or bias, as is frequently alleged. Attempting to draw a single, definitive conclusion from such limited data is not possible as the populations being compared are different. One of the most challenging but important areas of research in this area is determining how best to interpret and analyze this type of data.

Disparity throughout our society is well known — its causes, unfortunately, are not. Still, disparity in any area is worth studying to determine if it may be, even partially, caused by bias. Researchers have not reached a consensus on which benchmarks are most useful in the discussion. For example, the assumption that all police interactions should perfectly mirror census resident demographics disregards many other factors that may contribute to disparity including non-resident drivers, focused patrol in higher crime neighborhoods, repeat offenders and “economic” violations such as no insurance which can disproportionally affect lower income populations.

Understanding complex issues demands care and thorough consideration. Good public policy can only emerge from strong, expert analysis. To that end, the Berkeley Police Department is the first police agency in California to contract for research and analysis with the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA. The Center for Policing Equity conducts research to promote police accountability and transparency, and we believe their professional research will help inform local and national discussions about how best to analyze demographic information.

Community trust in our officers’ work is a fundamental element of our long success in Berkeley. The Berkeley community has high expectations of its public servants and we strive to meet or exceed those expectations. We focus on crime and safety, treating all people with dignity and respect, while operating in a transparent and accountable manner. We believe that criminal justice and social justice can coexist and as a well-educated and progressive police organization we welcome discussion and debate on this important issue.

Michael Meehan is the chief of the Berkeley Police Department.