Opinion: We must stop new initiative to hand power over the police department to Berkeley’s Police Review Commission

Two PRC members circumvented fellow commissioners to put a measure on the ballot to strip oversight of BPD from the city manager.

On March 14, two members of the Police Review Commission (PRC) subverted their fellow commissioners and attacked the structure of City Hall. They drafted a 19-page document that would remove the Berkeley Police Department from the control of the city manager and City Council — and give the power to oversee BPD to (you guessed it) themselves, in the form of a mutated PRC, an all-powerful “Berkeley Police Commission,” whose members would be appointed, not elected, and could only be removed (you guessed it again) by their own action.

The only concession to the mayor would be the ability to appoint the police chief, with consent of the City Council, from a list of two candidates approved by the Berkeley Police Commission.

If implemented, the document would render our dedicated and skillful police chief, Andrew Greenwood, who has decades of experience in the BPD, powerless. The new Berkeley Police Commission would “have the power to review and modify all written and unwritten policies, practices, and procedures of whatever kind and without limitation, in relation to the Berkeley police department.” No sworn officer would be eligible to serve on the commission. Control of every important decision would rest with people who have no training or direct experience in policing, and who would not be accountable to anyone but themselves.

There are members of the PRC who have participated constructively and meaningfully over the years, and who have much to contribute. They are not the members who are seeking absolute power over policing in Berkeley.

The two PRC members who seek that power are Berkeley Copwatch co-founder Andrea Prichett, appointed by City Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, and George Lippman, appointed by City Councilwoman Kate Harrison.

Ironically, those two commissioners made their move on a night when their agenda said they were going to address the staffing crisis at the BPD.

There is an alarming exodus of officers from the BPD, and very low recruitment, which is a national problem but one that is particularly acute in Berkeley. The officers present at the March 14 PRC meeting explained some of the root causes of the exodus, such as a lack of housing, and a lack of career opportunities in what is now a bare-bones department. But the biggest contributor seemed to be a perceived lack of political support for the department and extremely low morale.

The PRC meeting worsened the situation. The fact that the chief of police was not consulted on a document that would radically reshape police work in Berkeley confirmed the officers’ fears that there is little respect or support for their work in this community.

The PRC was told that Councilman Kriss Worthington has already put the initiative on the March 27 Berkeley City Council agenda. (See the agenda item for the Berkeley Community United for Police Oversight Ballot Measure here.) The commissioners formed a subcommittee of four — not including Prichett or Lippman — to review that document and aim to consider making their own alternative proposal. The timeline for that process is still in the works, but the subcommittee met twice this week, with more discussions to come.

Prichett and Lippman want the City Council to take the measure as it is and put it on the November ballot. If that happens, we should expect the staffing crisis at the BPD to worsen to the point where basic police functions are no longer possible.

I don’t think the City Council should take my word for it. I think they should ask the officers themselves. My only request, council members, is that when the officers tell you what their response to such a ballot initiative would be, that you believe them, and think twice.

To anyone who is supportive of the Berkeley Police Department, grateful for their work in any way, or in need of a police department that has enough officers to accomplish its work, this is the key moment to let your voice be heard. It is no longer safe for you to assume that your police department will remain viable in an atmosphere of political insanity.

Elisa Mikiten is a land use planner and partner in an architecture firm. Her recent interest in public safety stems from two robberies and a burglary in the last four months on her block.