Citizen panel on police to launch Berkeley protests probe

Police Review Commission, Jan. 14, 2015. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The city’s Police Review Commission voted Jan. 14 to investigate Berkeley’s recent protests. From left: Ann Rogers, Vice Chair George Perezvelez, Chairwoman Alison Bernstein, Karen Lowhurst and George Lippman. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Last week, Berkeley’s Police Review Commission voted unanimously to launch an investigation into the police response to protests over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown that halted business as usual in Berkeley in December.

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan told the citizen oversight panel during its Jan. 14 meeting that his department is working diligently on its own review of the protests, which is set to be complete within the next few months. Meehan said an officer, a sergeant and a lieutenant are working on the report “nonstop,” full time — as of earlier this month — under the direction of Berkeley Police Capt. Cynthia Harris.

“This is not going to be something that will sit around for six months and then nobody will ever see it,” Meehan told the PRC. “When it is complete, it will be made public in an un-redacted fashion so everybody will have a chance to read what we knew when we knew it, and what we believe can be done differently in the future to hopefully end up with a different result.”

Read complete Berkeley protests coverage on Berkeleyside.


Instead of waiting for that report’s findings, the commission voted to begin its own probe into why police used tear gas and other force on protesters Dec. 6, along with several other issues that have been raised as concerns by some community members over the past month. Commission Vice Chair George Perezvelez said the community might think the PRC was shirking its duties if it failed to take prompt action.

“Our own investigation is independent from theirs,” he told his fellow commissioners. “As good as all that information will do us, it just doesn’t sound like our process.”

Chair Alison Bernstein and commissioners Ann Rogers, Karen Lowhurst and George Lippman agreed. All five voted to begin their investigation sooner rather than later, but said they would address the logistics of how to proceed at their next meeting, Jan. 28. (Commissioners Barbara Allen and Oliver Zerrudo did not attend the meeting; Allen’s absence was excused due to a previously arranged three-month leave that began Jan. 11. Council members Darryl Moore and Lori Droste do not currently have appointees on the PRC.)

Berkeley police used teargas to break up protests Saturday night and Sunday morning. Photo: Pete Rosos
Officers used tear gas to break up protests in December after crowds threw items at officers and refused to disperse, police said. Photo: Pete Rosos

Specifically, the commission voted to look closely at the events of Dec. 6-8, focusing on the police department’s use of force and crowd control General Orders; its use of tear gas to disperse crowds on Telegraph Avenue; any limitation on the movement of emergency vehicles, which may have prevented Berkeley paramedics from reaching a man who collapsed and later died, according to an exclusive Berkeleyside report; and allegations that Berkeley police did little to quash disturbances Dec. 7 when vandals smashed windows and set trash on fire all through town and, in some cases, attacked other members of the crowd who tried to stop them. (See the related agenda packet items.)

Lippman asked his colleagues also to look at the use of batons and the firing of projectiles by Berkeley police to control crowds as part of the PRC review.

Police have said they only used tear gas and other types of force Dec. 6 after members of the crowd pelted them with a range of projectiles, injuring some officers, and failed to respond to repeated orders to disperse.

Numerous community members in the street that night have insisted, however, that the crowd on Telegraph was peaceful, and that police used inappropriate force on them. One woman, an intern minister, said she was struck in the head with a baton — and later required staples to repair her injury — after she tried to help someone who had fallen. Pictures also have circulated online showing dark bruises reported to have resulted from police projectiles. Others said they were unfairly subjected to tear gas because they were near Telegraph Avenue but had no part in the protests. There were preliminary reports on Twitter of other injuries too, including one woman’s broken ribs, but nothing has officially been released detailing injuries from Dec. 6-7.

One man who wrote to the Police Review Commission on Dec. 14 stood up for the police, however. Robert Gable of Berkeley said he was part of the protests on Telegraph.

“I was tear-gassed—and I deserved it,” he wrote (see page 17). “We did not disband as ordered by the police. Instead we stood there, and some of the crowd taunted the police.… for the most part, the blame for unwanted injury lies with the crowd that refused to follow police orders which would have allowed for peaceful protesting had we chosen to do so.”

Commission: “This is not a witch hunt”

Bernstein and others on the panel said the goal of the PRC review will be to scrutinize the policies, not the actions of individual officers: “This is about what choices did the command staff make, and were those the right choices?” she said.

“This is not a witch hunt,” added Perezvelez. “We’re not interested in this being a blame-pointing exercise.”

See videos from the crowd, and read a Q&A with police about the protests.

Rogers said she wants to know if there are additional options that may have been possible, that perhaps were not on the table or were not considered: “I want to see what choices you had. Maybe those weren’t the right choices,” she told Meehan.

Police Chief Michael Meehan
Police Chief Michael Meehan. Photo: BPD

Meehan said the internal review will address those issues, and will be “comprehensive.”

“Our goal is, like yours, to make sure everybody understands what occurred, why it occurred and, if there are reasonable alternatives, that we are considering them,” he told the commission.

Meehan said police will look at what took place in the first few days of the protests, and examine the department’s policies, planning, training, equipment, tactics and command-level decisions as part of the investigation. The post-incident report will look at alternatives and lessons learned, as well as what is needed to “keep our employees safe in the face of confrontation or being attacked.”

Chief: “The sooner it’s done the better”

He said, too, that commissioners will have ample opportunity to weigh in on the report once it’s complete to see if they believe anything was left unaddressed: “If there’s something missing, we want to know that.”

And, though Meehan declined Wednesday to provide a schedule by which the report will be done, he previously said he hopes it will be ready “within the next few months.” Said Meehan on Wednesday: “I told the staff: Take as long as you need to finish it, but I’m not going to wait forever for a response.… The sooner it’s done the better.”

Meehan told the commission he is open to the possibility of releasing records such as dispatch tapes, briefing notes, and other documents related to decisions made by supervisors, as broadly as he is allowed under the law.

“We are retaining everything for the review,” he told the panel, regarding data and documents related to the protests. “If there are documents you want, let the PRC officer know. As far as what sources we were using [to compile the report].… I don’t have any problem showing that to you.”

It’s not the first action the Police Review Commission has taken in response to last month’s protests. The panel voted in December to ask council to ban, temporarily, several types of force used by Berkeley officers, but council declined to act on that recommendation because police did not have a chance to weigh in about it, and also because in-depth reviews and fact-finding have not yet taken place. (Police representatives did not attend that meeting, Dec. 10, following four nights of lengthy protests that largely exhausted department resources.)

Staff: Just one complaint so far from Berkeley protests

Police Review Commission staffer Katherine Lee told the panel that, thus far, only one complaint, on Dec. 10 by Berkeley resident Moni Law, has been filed about police actions during the protests.

Law said after the meeting, on Twitter, that most students have been gone for the past month, which could mean more complaints are still to come. She said, too, that some people may be afraid to file complaints against the department, and that others may lack faith that the PRC has the power to address the problem. She previously told Berkeleyside that two Berkeley officers swung at her even though she was standing peacefully in the street.

The Berkeley City Council is also poised in the coming weeks to begin to address what happened Dec. 6-8. Council is set to discuss suggestions put forward by the city’s Peace & Justice Commission at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Those recommendations include an immediate moratorium on the use of tear gas and baton strikes until the Police Review Commission has a chance to complete its investigation. The Peace & Justice Commission has also asked council to give the PRC the ability to subpoena records as part of its review.

Later, at its regular 7 p.m. meeting, as part of its consent calendar, Councilman Darryl Moore, along with council members Jesse Arreguín and Linda Maio, has asked for a report within three months from the city manager about the implications of requiring Berkeley Police officers to use dashboard and body cameras. Arreguín also has several items on council’s action calendar related to further scrutiny of the police response to the December protests.

Read more about the Berkeley protests in past Berkeleyside coverage. Recent stories appear below.

Related:
Berkeley town hall examines race, police relations (01.18.15)
Residents air concerns about police staging to Police Review Commission (01.15.15)
The lowdown: Council on Berkeley protests and police relations, zoning board appeals (01.13.15)
Berkeley Police Q&A: Tear gas use, protest costs, more (01.08.15)
Arrested anti-police protesters may wait up to a year to find out if they will be charged (01.07.15)
Police Review Commission asks for suspension of tear gas (12.12.14)

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