Opinion: Berkeley residents should have the chance to vote on strengthened civilian oversight of police

The proposal is a compromise between those who advocated for an even stronger body similar to the one in Oakland and those who felt there was little need for change to the PRC.

We are people who have advocated for increased accountability for law enforcement in Berkeley and for a progressive approach to policing for many years.

We are pleased to support the Police Review Commission (PRC) proposal for a charter amendment to strengthen civilian police oversight while maintaining the authority of the City Council. We urge Council to put the charter amendment for a new Police Commission on the November ballot and call on members of the public to communicate their own support to Council as well.

From the outset, we acknowledge the polarization in the community about the issue of law enforcement. Any proposal must try to meet the needs of the full diversity of Berkeley’s people. We believe the PRC proposal does so in the following ways:

  • It reduces the perception of a conflict of interest by separating the community oversight function from the chain of command within city management.
  • The proposal gives the Commission the authority, which is allowed under state law and judicial precedent, to see disciplinary data that is relevant to the Commission’s areas of responsibility, on a strictly confidential basis.
  • If the commission and the chief of police do not agree on discipline for an officer’s violation, the city manager will be the final arbiter.
  • The proposal gives heightened authority to the Commission to audit the Police Department (BPD) and recommend changes to the department’s policies and practices. These recommendations will be heard by the City Council, which will retain final decision-making power.

This proposal is a compromise that emerged after months of debate in the community between those who advocated an even stronger body similar to those in Oakland and San Francisco, and those who felt there was little need for change to the current oversight model. The PRC, whose members are each appointed directly by a member of the City Council, held many public meetings and crafted the proposed charter amendment in a collaborative workshop mode, finally adopting the proposal unanimously.

We believe that it is important to see social issues through the eyes of people we disagree with. In this way, we can begin a discourse about policing that is more civil, more productive, and less polarized.

For example, even in Berkeley, we see very different perspectives about the BPD within the Black and White communities. Beyond the national conversation about race and policing, the disparate views also stem from a current racial disparity in police stops, searches, and use of force, shown in the BPD’s own data and confirmed in the recent report by the Center for Policing Equity, as well in a report from the PRC.

We understand also that police officers have due process rights, that their work is vital to the community’s safety, and that they daily place themselves in harm’s way. The PRC proposal maintains their due process rights. To do otherwise would be illegal. It would also perpetuate the false dichotomy between civil liberties and civil rights, on the one hand, and public safety and fair treatment for city employees.

This moderate initiative is not anti-police and certainly not soft on crime.  Strengthened public oversight of the police is a public benefit and increases the legitimacy of and trust in the police, leading to a more cooperative relationship between community and law enforcement.

The first Council hearing on police accountability will take place Tuesday night, May 29, at Old City Hall, 2134 Milvia Street. The meeting begins at 6: 00 p.m. As this is a complex and weighty matter, it may take multiple Council meetings to finalize what goes on the ballot. The City Council may ask staff to consult with the Berkeley Police Association. It is important for all concerned to engage with the Council process from the beginning, to give the decision makers the benefit of your experience and your wisdom. We hope that the whole community can come together to support the PRC proposal, which increases accountability for the police department while maintaining public safety and impartial policing for all.

Please attend and speak at the May 29 meeting and other upcoming Council discussions on the PRC proposal, and call or write to the mayor and council members (write to council@cityofberkeley.info).

Signed: Paul Kealoha-Blake, Catherine Huchting, Diana Bohn, boona cheema, Mansour Id-Deen, Elliot Halpern, Moni Law, George Lippman, Carol Marasovic, James McFadden, Willie Phillips, Andrea Prichett, Dan Robinson, Phoebe Sorgen, Margy Wilkinson

The authors are community members who have been working on peace and social justice issues for many decades combined.