Berkeley police officers disproportionately stop and search people of color during traffic stops, according to a coalition of groups that presented data and demanded changes from the department Tuesday.
The Berkeley Police Department quickly disputed the conclusions reached by the group, and said the department has already taken a number of steps to address implicit biases through training and education. The department says it has been recognized nationally for how well its staffing breakdown reflects the demographics of the community, as well as for its training and professionalism.
Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said he appreciated that the groups are raising awareness about the issue of disparities in the criminal justice system, but questioned their methodology and said their statement “generates more questions than answers.”
The coalition, which includes the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, analyzed nearly seven months of data related to about 4,700 traffic stops this year. According to the data, they said, 30.5% of the stops involved black motorists, even though black people make up only 8% of Berkeley’s population.
White motorists made up 36.7% of the stops, though they make up 60% of the city’s population.
The outcomes of those stops also showed differences. According to the data presented Tuesday, 66.2% of the black motorists who were stopped were released without arrest or citation. Hispanic motorists were released without arrest or citation in 56.4% of stops. White motorists were released 38.1% of the time without arrest or citation.
The groups also analyzed police searches: “Out of all African Americans who were stopped, 19.1% were subjected to a search, but only 4% of Whites who were stopped were also searched. Of Latinos stopped, 13.4% were searched.”
Mansour Id-Deen, who runs the Berkeley NAACP, said he believes the Berkeley statistics mirror national trends related to racial bias in policing.
Id-Deen said the coalition believes the traffic stop data is evidence of “illegal patterns and practices by some members of the Berkeley Police Department” that gives weight to concerns expressed by people of color “for a very, very long time here in Berkeley” about racial profiling and over-policing.
“The numbers really affirm what we’ve been saying all along,” said Marcel Jones, a member of Berkeley Copwatch and Cal’s Black Student Union. “Black folks are being stopped at alarming rates.”
They described the disparity in traffic stops as a human rights violation that causes the “suffering and humiliation of real people,” and is contributing to increasing alienation between communities of color and police officers in Berkeley.
The groups filed a Public Records Act request in August to collect the data. They said police failed to provide data related to pedestrian and bicycle stops, though required by the department’s own general orders to do so. Jones said the groups are still hoping to get that data in the future.
The data set provided by police did not include geographic information, which could provide additional context to the stops.
The coalition issued four demands of the city, in light of the data: for the department to report statistical information quarterly, “as well as its progress in eliminating biased policing”; the identification of squads or teams with a pattern of stops where people are released without tickets or arrests; and the establishment of a citywide department focused on race and equity.
The coalition also said Berkeley police officers should be wearing body cameras, and that there should be “appropriate discipline” for officers found to have failed to record major incidents.
“There’s no reason why Berkeley does not have cameras now,” said James Chanin, a civil rights attorney with a long history in the Bay Area. Chanin noted that Oakland police officers now wear body cameras, and have seen a 40% drop in complaints, along with a reduction in use of force reports. Meanwhile, arrests have gone up, he added, meaning there’s no indication that there has been a reduction in enforcement efforts in the city.
“We are not demanding perfection,” Chanin said, adding that the coalition believes the yield rate — when someone is released without a ticket or arrest — should be the same across all races. “We’re talking about something of core importance here that really needs to be changed.”
Coalition members also shared concerns about increasing gentrification in Berkeley, and said the analysis calls into question the department’s “clean reputation.”
They also noted that, though they have not compared the Berkeley findings to those of other cities, they hope to do that in the future, along with a deeper analysis that also looks at pedestrian and bicycle stop numbers.
Id-Deen said he has met several times in the past with Chief Meehan, and hopes to sit down with him to discuss the 2015 data, though it has not happened yet.
He noted that the Berkeley NAACP has identified racial disparities “across the board” in Berkeley, related to housing, health, education and employment. The organization has asked the city to implement a number of steps related to addressing reported disparities in employment practices, and has recently raised similar issues with the practices of the Berkeley Unified School District.
Police department responds to the allegations
Meehan spoke with members of the media after the coalition statement, and said, while he appreciated the group raising the issue, he disagreed with its conclusions.
He said he had not reviewed the data from the group, and could not confirm its accuracy, but looks forward to continuing to have collaborative discussions with the groups that presented it.
He said the city is finalizing a contract with the UCLA-based Center for Policing Equity, which will do its own in-depth analysis of the Berkeley police stop data.
“There are disparities throughout the criminal justice system. The question is: What does it mean?” he asked. “A more careful analysis, I’m sure, will produce a much more enlightened response.”
He questioned the methodology of the coalition and said social scientists have found the comparison between stops and population numbers to be “the weakest possible measure of bias.” Meehan said the large cities surrounding Berkeley have different racial breakdowns that could contribute to the differences.
Meehan said he remained unconvinced regarding the significance of the differences among races where no ticket or arrest resulted. He said the higher percentage of traffic stops involving black motorists who are released without a ticket or arrest could be seen by some to be an indication of a more liberal department that believes a warning can at times be just as effective as a stiffer penalty.
“The fact that an officer doesn’t choose to cite someone, in some people’s minds would show that we’re a very progressive, liberal, thoughtful organization — and that we’re not all about enforcement,” he said.
He noted that the search data provided in response to the Public Records Act request also did not take into account the percentage of those searches that might have resulted from someone’s probation status, or the level of the initial offense. In addition, they did not take into account whether particular suspect descriptions prompted the stops, though he said that data could be considered.
He said the department does plan to provide pedestrian and bicycle stop data to the group. That data was inadvertently not included in its response to the Public Records Act request, according to police Capt. Cynthia Harris.
Meehan said the department is among just a few in the nation that voluntarily began collecting stop data in January, and that it began its efforts related to Fair and Impartial Policing training five years ago.
He said he is on board with the idea of Berkeley police wearing body cameras, but that the city is still trying to come up with the money to pay for the program. The department sought a national grant to help with that endeavor but learned recently it had not been awarded the money.
He said the department hires “top-notch” candidates, who must have a college degree. He described the department’s training as “state of the art,” and its fair and impartial policing policy as “a model policy.”
As far as department demographics, Meehan said organizations have found it among the most representative agencies in the country in terms of how its employees compare racially to the community it serves.
“We are way, way ahead of the curve,” he said. “We are definitely leading the charge in many areas.”
Lorie Fridell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, has led Fair and Impartial Policing training for Berkeley police in recent years.
“Long before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing said this year that every agency should train their personnel on implicit bias, Chief Meehan was implementing the FIP science-based training,” she Tuesday said by email. “BPD was one of the earliest agencies to adopt the FIP training.”
The training, she said, looks at how biases can affect perceptions and behavior, and works to educate law enforcement personnel and offer them skills to promote equitable treatment. She described several trainings attended by Meehan and Berkeley patrol officers as recently as last November.
“No other agency has shown this level of commitment to state-of-the-art training on the national issue of biased policing,” Fridell said.
Do you rely on Berkeleyside for local news? Support independent journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member for $10 a month or even less, or by making a one-time donation.