Opinion: City Council should place charter amendment for a new Berkeley police commission on ballot

Civilian oversight of the police is an emerging best practice. Enlightened police leaders understand that independent oversight is a critical part of fair and impartial policing.

To: Berkeley Mayor and City Council

We, the undersigned leaders and candidates for public office representing Berkeley, call on you to place on the November ballot the charter amendment for a new Berkeley Police Commission.

In an act of political courage, the City Council voted on July 10 to refer proposed charter language to the city manager to begin the required meet-and-confer process with employee associations. This language was developed through an in-depth cycle of debate and compromise, including a community initiative, revision by the police review commission, and several drafts by members of the council. The final version retains the advisory nature of the existing police review commission (PRC), but gives the new commission the tools it needs to realize the PRC promise of providing for community participation in setting and reviewing police policies, practices, and procedures, as well as a means for prompt, impartial, and fair investigation of complaints against the BPD.

A great divide has opened up in Berkeley concerning issues of law enforcement, particularly oversight and transparency. One need look no further than the raging debate over the Urban Shield exercise. The question was resolved for this year by the City Council on July 23, with a 5-4 decision to continue participating in the controversial program. This move, however, did little to settle the underlying debate about Urban Shield, much less on broader issues of policing.

We, the undersigned, hear and acknowledge the pain on many sides in this civic clash. The July 23 meeting brought to light the historic—and present—trauma that many residents, particularly residents of color, experience during encounters with local police. We also know the fear and hurt that comes from the threat of violent crime, and we know that first responders play a crucial role in the safety of our lives and property. We believe in a Berkeley that is wise enough to consider these problems together and to develop solutions that speak to everyone’s needs.

The initiative for an enhanced police commission will be a step toward community healing. Community oversight is much more than sitting in judgment of individual officer complaints. Done right, civilian oversight is an organized process of bringing together community members and police with varying perspectives and lived experiences. It can educate the community on police practices and the job of the officer. It is the appropriate place to work through knotty problems in law enforcement and bring recommended solutions to the city’s policymakers.

Due to a drafting error in the original 1973 voter initiative that created the PRC, it was structured as an ordinance rather than a charter amendment, so it conflicted with existing charter provisions, and its power was stripped by a court ruling. A current version, drafted by Mayor Jesse Arreguín and City Councilwoman Kate Harrison, corrects that issue, and restores to the commission the power to view departmental data that is relevant to the commission’s work, on a strictly confidential basis.

Enlightened police leaders understand that independent civilian oversight is a critical part of fair and impartial policing. Police Chief, the publication of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, stated in an article this March:

“Civilian boards can be successful if properly implemented, and once in operation, they can help build community trust with law enforcement, cooperation will increase, people will more readily engage in contacting the police with information, and neighborhoods will be safer.

… Officer morale will increase because public opinion will change. Most importantly, the police will have improved policies, procedures and organizational cultures that are accepted by the communities they serve.[1]”

Civilian oversight of the police is a positive, emerging best practice. For example, the European Union recommends that police oversight bodies:

  • have independence from the executive branch of government and report directly to the elected legislature;
  • have adequate finances and resources to perform their functions;
  • have full investigative powers regarding police misconduct allegations, including the power to obtain all the information necessary to conduct an effective investigation;
  • have the ability to conduct inspections on the performance of law enforcement agencies
  • are representative of a diverse population, and consult with all stakeholders, including complainants, police services and employee associations, police departments, community organizations and NGOs with an interest in policing.[2]

The Berkeley initiative is neutral in that it does not prescribe any policing policies, staffing levels, or practices of any kind. It is a purely good governance measure.

We urge the mayor and council to move forward to approve the Arreguin-Harrison ballot measure before August 10, and not to be distracted by side issues. We expect the city manager will do her job and conduct the meet-and-confer process with employee associations in good faith. We look to you to exert moral and political leadership to strengthen independent oversight of the police, which will benefit everyone in the Berkeley community, civilians and staff alike.

[1] Pamela Seyffert, Captain, Sacramento California Police Department, March 2018, http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/can-professional-civilian-oversight-improve-community-police-relations/

[2] “Police Oversight Principles,” European Partners Against Corruption, November 20, 2011, https://www.epac-eacn.org/downloads/recommendations/doc_view/2-police-oversight-principles.

The European Partners against Corruption (EPAC) is an independent, informal network bringing together more than 60 anti-corruption authorities and police oversight bodies from Council of Europe Member Countries. EPAC was initiated in 2001 under the auspices of the Presidency of the European Union.

Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA); Igor Tregub is a member of the Berkeley Rent Board, the chair of the Zoning Adjustment Board, the chair of the Housing Advisory Commission, and a candidate for Berkeley City Council District 1; Rigel Robinson is a former ASUC External Affairs vice-president and is a candidate for Berkeley City Council District 7; Alfred Twu is a candidate for Berkeley City Council District 8; Soli Alpert is a candidate for the Berkeley Rent Board; Erica Etelson;Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb of Chochmat HaLev; Elliot Halpern, a member of the board of directors of the ACLU Berkeley/NorthEast Bay; Linda Halpern; Sharon Maldonaldo; Janice Schroeder; Marge Sussman; Genevieve Wilson