Opinion: Berkeley should reduce, not enhance, its Police Review Commission

The push to give the PRC more authority over the police department is unneeded and unwarranted in Berkeley, which has an excellent department. Stop this misplaced zealotry.

Berkeley is at a crossroads in its relationship with the Berkeley Police Department. Despite being widely admired for its professionalism, standards, and extraordinary care in the unique challenges Berkeley presents, the department is experiencing record attrition, has lost the ability to staff specialized units and is confronting unprecedented challenges in recruiting new officers. From 2010 to 2015, six officers left the department.  Since 2016, departures have accelerated with 18 officers leaving.  Worse yet, 80% of officers surveyed have taken “a concrete step” to leave the department or the profession.

While part of this trend can be attributed to the city’s slow-rolling financial train wreck, the City Council majority’s hostility toward the department has accelerated the decline. District 4 City Councilwoman Kate Harrison, Mayor Arreguín’s hand-picked successor, ran on a platform of “police accountability,” a dog whistle for reining in abusive cops in a city that has none. District 2’s Cheryl Davila appointed anti-police extremist and Berkeley Copwatch founder Andrea Prichett to the Police Review Commission. Prichett’s views are so immoderate that she has been forced to recuse herself multiple times because she is incapable of being objective where officer conduct is involved. Watching her berate officers in a recent community meeting, one would think this was Selma in the 60s but for the fact that the object of her scorn was a highly respected African American sergeant in a department that has an outstanding record of diverse hiring and promotion and of treating community members with dignity.

Relations between the police and elected officials have deteriorated to such an extent that the Police Officers’ Association has had to resort to a direct outreach to citizens on a website whose title is a harbinger of the trouble ahead:  wheresmyberkeleycop.com.  The key points of that brief:  we’re critically under-resourced; we have a major attrition problem; our job offers aren’t competitive; officers are feeling the lack of support from the political establishment. This is a dangerous road.

Most alarmingly, District 7’s Kriss Worthington is advocating to put an item, drafted by Prichett and Harrison’s PRC appointee George Lippman, on the 2018 ballot that would replace the PRC with an even more powerful commission to be called the Berkeley Police Commission.  As a recent Berkeleyside opinion essay explains, Prichett and Harrison advanced their proposal without consulting the other commissioners. Worthington put the item on the council agenda without consulting the chief of police. Oversight and accountability for thee, but not for me!

Here is the substance of Worthington’s proposal for a commission that would be empowered to:

  • Hire and fire all officers without consideration of Berkeley’s personnel practices
  • Define police practices — vehicles, procedures, tools — without the commissioners having had police training of any kind
  • Modify the department’s budget request to the City Council
  • Determine its own budget independent of the city manager and Berkeley’s ability to pay
  • Be completely independent of the professional city manager
  • Reject policy proposals, with no overriding authority on the City Council
  • Define its own measures of effectiveness, with no checks and balances
  • Have the power to retain its own attorney at the city’s expense
  • Hire full-time staff to number at least twice the headcount of the existing PRC

Let me be clear:  this proposal would fulfill the fantasies of anarchists everywhere. It is simply impossible to imagine professional officers choosing to serve under these conditions. We must not indulge this attempt to reform the Ferguson Police Department by destroying our own.

Unfortunately for proponents, there are few if any facts to suggest that this augmentation of civilian oversight is indicated. If anything, Berkeley is overspending on a body that delivers very little for the money.

Unique among the city’s commissions, the Police Review Commission has dedicated, full-time staff costing $602,055 in salary and benefits in 2017. (That cost is projected to rise to $722,180 in FY 2018, according to the city budget.) That sum does not include time spent by internal affairs, the cost of officer representation, and the time of the officers themselves appearing before the commission. A typical PRC complaint requires upwards of 100 hours split among officers as well as attorneys, and investigators all with billable hours in the thousands of dollars.

Less than 20 complaints are filed in a typical year and nearly all of them are dismissed; the average of sustained complaints is one/year over the last five years.  Nearly all of the sustained complaints are overturned on appeal.
Worthington’s proposal to double down on this failure might make sense in Ferguson or even Oakland, but it is exactly wrong for today’s Berkeley.  It amounts to a clear signal to our sworn officers and police staff that they are not trusted to uphold their oath to serve and protect the citizenry. The proposed body would increase costs at a time when Berkeley must look for ways to reduce expenses. In fact, the high costs and minimal impact of the PRC ought to invite exploration into lighter weight forms of oversight.

We have an excellent police department in Berkeley and pandering to misplaced zealotry is a disservice to them and to all of us. In sum, the City Council should refuse to put Worthington’s absurd measure before the voters, place a high priority on repairing relationships with the department, and draft a new measure that replaces the existing PRC with an efficient and inexpensive process for addressing citizen complaints. Finally, residents of Districts 2 and 4 should lobby Davila and Harrison to have Prichett and Lippman removed from their positions; their end run around the rest of the commission and Prichett’s multiple recusals raise serious questions about their fitness to serve.

Eric Friedman leads a data science and engineering organization. He lives with his family in District 4 and enjoys cycling, wind sports and making wooden furniture.