Opinion: Berkeley should elect members of a revamped police board to make it accountable

The Police Accountability Board will be responsible for setting priorities for the police and, importantly, promoting policy discussions about what is appropriate for policing.

I’m a criminologist and have worked on police issues throughout my career. I am the author or co-author of 10 books and 150 essays and articles on race, inequality and social justice, including The Iron Fist & The Velvet Glove: An Analysis of the U. S. Police and The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency. I am currently completing a book for St. Martin’s Press, Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States.

In the early 1970s, I worked on an electoral campaign for community control of the police in Berkeley that would have established an elected board to govern the police, similar to the way that education and rent control boards function. The initiative was based on an idea proposed by the Black Panther Party. Bobby Seale, Ron Dellums, and many others supported the campaign. (It did not pass.)

The initiative served as a model for community-based organizations around the country that were looking for new ways of controlling the police given the brutality and killings of the 1960s and Nixon’s law and order politics.

Now, in the wake of a new round of police killings and extreme militarization of policing nationwide, and the demands of organizations such as Black Lives Matter for police accountability, this is the right moment to try again to create democratic governance of policing. Police review commissions that were established in several cities in the 1970s have been largely ineffective because they are reactive rather than proactive, and because police unions limit their legal powers. Moreover, efforts to investigate extra-legal police violence do not address the fact that law enforcement routinely operates as a de facto branch of the military rather than a public service.

That is why I am supporting the creation of an elected Police Accountability Board in Berkeley which I hope residents will have the chance to vote on in November. Berkeley has always been in the leadership of police issues: in the early 20th-century police chief August Vollmer was active in efforts to professionalize the police; in the 1960s and 1970s we were among the first cities to promote civilian review boards.

Now we have an opportunity to debate what has never been tried before: a democratically-elected police board that will do much more than deal with problems after they have occurred. The Police Accountability Board will be responsible for setting priorities for the police and, importantly, promoting policy discussions about what is appropriate for policing. Should the police patrol the homeless, deal with the mentally ill and handle neighborhood disputes? Are there other models, other than a military model, on which police recruitment and training should be based? The PAB would be empowered, for example, to make the police responsible only for serious crimes and transfer tasks related to the social welfare to other agencies.

I urge the Berkeley City Council to put the measure on the November ballot so that we can have a full public debate about how the police should be governed.

Hundreds of Berkeley voters have signed the petition to put the measure on the ballot. The National Police Accountability Project of the National Lawyers Guild calls the Berkeley Police Accountability Board measure “an important initiative”. The League of Women Voters has agreed to schedule discussion forums including this measure for September to educate voters in preparation for the election.

The measure is also endorsed by:

Bobby Seale, Co-founder of the Black Panther Party.

Glenda Hatchett, Judge representing the family of Philando Castile.

Mike Davis, author and MacArthur Fellow.

Dan Siegel, civil rights lawyer.

Lynn B. Cooper, Facilitator, Restorative Justice Program, San Quentin Prison.

Micol Seigel, Charles Warren Center, Harvard University.

Anne Weills, civil rights lawyer.

Heather Ann Thompson, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian.

Troy Duster, Chancellor’s professor emeritus, Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, UC Berkeley

Erin M. Kerrison, School of Social Welfare, UC Berkeley.

Patricia Penn Hilden, professor emerita, Department of Ethnic Studies, UC Berkeley.

Alessandro De Giorgi, associate professor of Justice Studies, San Jose State University.

Carino Gallo, professor of Criminology, Holy Names University.

Milton Reynolds, community educator.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Chancellor’s professor of Medical Anthropology Emerita, Department of Anthropology, UC Berkeley.

Tony Platt is a Berkeley resident and a distinguished affiliated scholar at the UC Berkeley Law School’s Center for the Study of Law and Society.