Opinion: Oppose the proposed ballot measure to give more power to Berkeley’s Police Review Commission

The proposal is not a vision on how to improve public safety and accountability in Berkeley, but a power grab by the PRC.

On Tuesday night, the City Council will consider a voyage on the Titanic.

Item 32 is a revised proposed ballot measure to grant the Police Review Commission the power to “review and approve all Police Department policies, practices, and procedures,” and to seize the power to investigate and discipline individual members of the Police Department. They would grant themselves subpoena powers and the power to hire their own attorney (paid for by you) so that they could evade the control and advice of the city manager and the city attorney. The greatest irony is that they would sever the ties between the democratic process and public safety policy by making the PRC—which is not an elected body—untouchable.

Who does it exclude from creating policy and practices? The people who do the work, including the chief of police and the entire Berkeley police department. Indeed the department was not even consulted on this proposal.

What is the problem the PRC is trying to solve? They already have the power to participate in setting and reviewing police department policies and practices; they just don’t do it. Meeting after meeting, a handful of members obstruct every initiative large and small that the police chief brings to them, asking questions that have been answered repeatedly, and refusing to move forward. When the chief asks them to review and comment on policies, which he willingly submits, they complain that it is too much work. On May 23, they struggled to get three members who were willing to review a mere 25 policies. Even the main proponent of the ballot measure said that she can only review policies “in the summer.” Great. Let’s put her in charge of public safety, then wait for her vacation.

The PRC has not generated a vision for the future of public safety in Berkeley, only a vision for their own power while ignoring the crisis we are already in.

There are approximately 25 vacancies in the police department right now. The department can no longer cover a basic patrol without mandatory overtime from our overworked officers. This crisis has been on the PRC agenda multiple times without a single constructive response, and until a majority of the PRC members stand up to the main saboteur on the PRC, they will be part of the problem.

The saboteur is Andrea Prichett, who submitted the original ballot measure. Prichett has made it her mission to antagonize the BPD since 1990. Under the guise of citizen watch, which is an important function, Prichett displays a lack of judgment, not just documenting but interfering with police work. In one case, she refused to stop taping while protected medical information was being discussed, shouting at the firefighter and officer, “You have how many officers out here to deal with what?” Well, her, for one. She has already been used as fodder for the right wing on FOX News, and her cries to “civilianize” policing sound perfect for the NRA in Florida. I’m sure she thinks she’s doing good, and maybe sometimes she does, but her tactics are purely antagonistic and distrustful of anyone in a uniform.

In response to the staffing crisis, Prichett screams for hard data as a way to deflect from her toxic effects. We know how few police recruits apply to the city of Berkeley. We know how many existing officers are looking for work elsewhere. We know that the number of vacancies in the department grows every month.

Here’s what I don’t want to find out: How many officers would leave the BPD rather than subject their careers and their lives to the absolute control of Andrea Prichett and a PRC that hasn’t supported them?

I know we are all used to staying home and letting Berkeley’s craziness play itself out. On Tuesday night, that could be a catastrophic mistake. If there is to be a City Council majority willing to be thoughtful about public safety, rather than going for this simplistic and destructive discharge of political energy, they will need your support.

Here are the bright spots: City Councilmembers Linda Maio, Sophie Hahn, Susan Wengraf and Lori Droste put an item on last week’s agenda to re-establish a constructive tone in this discussion. City Councilwoman Kate Harrison replaced Prichett’s co-conspirator on the PRC with someone who has credentials in sociology and criminology. Harrison’s new appointee seems to be a sharp skeptic, but not a saboteur. The questions from  Hahn’s appointee are intelligent and getting sharper, even if he hasn’t yet stood up. And Mayor Jesse Arreguín recently appointed a thoughtful member who at least abstained from voting for Prichett’s power grab.

Write, call, email or show up at the City Council Meeting next Tuesday night. Your Council, your mayor, your police chief, and your city manager need you. This community needs you, and the progressive agenda needs you because if we fail on public safety, that agenda could be easily sabotaged.

Elisa Mikiten is a land use planner and partner in an architecture firm.