The Police Review Commission voted Wednesday night to ask the city to require Berkeley police to hand over an incomplete draft analysis from a think tank trying to take a nuanced look at racial disparities in local law enforcement stops of pedestrians and motorists.
The citizen watchdog group, made up of council appointees, is an advisory body that can only make recommendations. But members were united Wednesday in their request that the mayor, city manager and City Council do whatever they can to get BPD to release the draft.
“I truly appreciate how impactful it can be to release data that is incomplete and sends a message that ultimately is not correct,” Chair Alison Bernstein said at the meeting. “But it is clearly impactful to not have it released.”
Some members of the public have been clamoring for answers since September 2015, when a coalition including the Berkeley NAACP, Berkeley Copwatch, UC Berkeley Black Student Union, National Lawyers Guild and American Civil Liberties Union said BPD officers pull over black and Hispanic motorists much more often than white ones. They held a press conference to present their data and said BPD needed to change its ways. In response, then-Police Chief Michael Meehan pledged to give a year of data to the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) for an in-depth analysis. The organization, which describes itself as a “research and action think tank promoting police transparency and accountability,” has been working to collect and analyze police stop data on a national scale.
All across the nation, many communities have expressed concern, anger and frustration about racial disparities often found in police stops, with black motorists getting stopped and searched more often than white ones despite being a smaller percentage of the population. Police critics have said the data prove clear bias and discrimination on the part of officers, while police say the numbers don’t take into account important factors that justify the gap.
The long-awaited analysis had been scheduled to go before the Police Review Commission on Wednesday night. But last week, Police Chief Andrew Greenwood said that would not happen. That prompted an outcry from local activists who said there should be no more delays. A handful of speakers told the commission that the report should be made available as a step toward making important policy changes and improving relations between the community and BPD.
“In Berkeley, the family members still give their young male children ‘the talk’: how to comport themselves in front of police,” said Elliot Halpern of the ACLU. “Releasing this report and working on this data is a step toward building trust in this community and all of Berkeley.”
The full dataset, going back to January 2015, was posted online by the city in October 2015, and has been continuously updated since then. So anyone can actually do an analysis. But the think tank had agreed to look at 12 months of data, analyze the department’s existing practices and procedures, and make recommendations for future data collection, analysis and reporting standards.
Greenwood said Wednesday night he was concerned about a number of issues that came up in the draft report, including possibly missing data from 2015, an incomplete analysis of the reasons for police stops, and no information about police force, because that piece of the report and data collection began more recently and is still underway.
He said BPD already tracks and separates “officer-initiated stops from stops where the officer was making a stop due to a previous event/description/previous information, like stopping a person known to be wanted,” Greenwood told the PRC earlier this month. And he said that’s important information to have. In fact, that was one of the primary questions former Chief Meehan wanted answered as part of the think tank analysis.
Greenwood said he had also been concerned to learn, too late in the process, that only data from 2015 was analyzed. He said he wants 2016 data included in the report too. His goal is to offer a similar report each year to help the community better understand the data and dynamics of police stops, he said.
Members of the Police Review Commission said Wednesday they were frustrated about all the delays, and that it’s time to make the report available, one way or another. They also said, given the changes the chief hopes to see, they weren’t confident the final report would be complete anytime soon. The chief estimated it might take three more months, though he said he did not know what timeline would be realistic for the Center for Policing Equity. That won’t work, commissioners said.
“We need to take extra steps to try to heal this problem,” said Commissioner George Lippman. “Three months is way too long.”
Lippman said the PRC isn’t interested in singling out individual officers, but just wants to look at the overall analysis and recommendations as they are. Commissioners said they were worried that BPD might be weighing in too much, and said they simply want to get the draft interim report, as written, as soon as possible.
And, while commissioners acknowledged the perils of inaccurate data, they said, essentially, the clock has run out.
“Of course it’s your job to want good, clean information,” said Commissioner Andrea Prichett. “But as a community we need to see some action.”
Other commissioners agreed about the importance of publication now, though they also expressed some reticence about the potential impacts.
“There’s a trap to releasing information that’s preliminary,” said Commissioner Terry Roberts. “Everybody is going to read the information the way they read it, and it really hasn’t been vetted the way it should be. I think that really is a trap.”
Roberts said commissioners might want to sit down with the chief in a subcommittee once the report is out to make sure they have an understanding of the issues. Other commissioners said the chief could simply write his own supplement to the think tank report that explains any deficiencies, errors or other issues that crop up.
Ultimately, the commission voted to send a letter to council, the mayor and the city manager to urge the police department to release the report as soon as possible.
Just before the vote, Lippman tried to make a friendly amendment to put a three-week deadline on the request. But there wasn’t enough support to get it done. He said the omission was disappointing.
“We haven’t really gained anything then,” he said.