A Berkeley City Council member who ran a red light in July suggested a police officer who pulled him over should let him off, citing the raise he had just voted for as part of confidential contract negotiations with the police union, Berkeleyside has learned.
During the stop, Councilman Ben Bartlett immediately told the officer who he was and said he had just taken a “big stand” to push for an increase in police compensation. Even after he learned he’d only get a warning for running the light, and a “fix-it ticket” for not having his license, he wasn’t pleased.
“Breaking my balls [to] give you guys the biggest raise possible,” he told the officer. “This how you repay me?”
Bartlett also said he had called the officer’s boss, Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood, and told the officer it was “crazy” that she was making him late, according to the officer’s audio recording, which Berkeleyside obtained through a Public Records Act request.
The stop took place July 19, as Bartlett was rushing to an event for Berkeley Councilman Kriss Worthington. Worthington had planned to reveal he would not run again after 22 years representing the Southside neighborhood near UC Berkeley. The announcement was set to begin at noon in front of the city offices on Milvia Street.
Just before 12:10 p.m., a Berkeley police officer saw Bartlett run the red light from eastbound Ashby Avenue onto northbound Martin Luther King Jr. Way, according to BPD records, which Bartlett did not dispute. The officer, Stephanie Cole, pulled Bartlett over in his white BMW on Russell Street, and told him she had seen him run the light, which was “obviously not safe at all.”
“Is this really necessary?” Bartlett asked. “You know, we’re voting on your contract right now.”
Bartlett, who represents South Berkeley, apologized profusely and identified himself as a City Council member. He told Cole he was rushing to Worthington’s “big ceremony,” which he also described as a “meeting at City Council.” When she asked for his license, Bartlett couldn’t find it, and eventually said he must have left it at home. He initially couldn’t find his registration or insurance either.
Bartlett apologized repeatedly, telling the officer, “I appreciate your work here.… and I love you guys. You guys took care of a big problem in my district, just on Sunday.”
When he couldn’t find the paperwork, Bartlett, who is an attorney, asked the officer if he could “come to the station and do this later.” Cole told him he could not.
“Is this really necessary?” he asked her. “You know, we’re voting on your contract right now.”
The officer said she knew.
At the time, the city and police union had been involved in protracted negotiations over the police contract dating back to 2017. It was not an easy process. Little has been said publicly about the negotiations, in part because those discussions are confidential, both sides have told Berkeleyside. The council did not publicly vote to approve the police contract until July 31, though officials had met in closed session to discuss the matter July 16, several days before the traffic stop.
“I took a big stand to get you a raise,” Bartlett told the officer. She said she appreciated it.
About five minutes later, as the officer was asking the dispatch center to look up Bartlett’s license, he said he had just called the police chief. The chief was in a meeting, Bartlett added, but would call back “in a minute.”
“Breaking my balls [to] give you guys the biggest raise possible,” Bartlett told the officer. “This how you repay me?”
A dispatcher found Bartlett in the DMV system, but the only record she saw listed his license as suspended or revoked. BPD had no license number to use for the search — Bartlett said he didn’t know it — and Bartlett’s name was only coming up in the DMV system in connection with an “index number.” The DMV describes that temporary number as one assigned to someone “when they receive a moving violation and they don’t have a driver license number or ID card.”
Bartlett told the officer he had “never been pulled over before,” and “never had to find that stuff,” as he searched for his paperwork. He said during the stop that his license was valid, however, and BPD was able to confirm that sometime later, according to the city.
Toward the end of the July 19 exchange, Bartlett again asked for the officer to let him take his paperwork to the station after the Worthington retirement event so he could deal with the issue then. But, without any documentation, Cole was still trying to verify the information he had provided verbally. Bartlett eventually found his registration, but not his auto insurance.
The officer said she would give the councilman a warning for the missing insurance — and for running the red light, too. The only violation on the citation, she said, would be the missing driver’s license. She told Bartlett he could go to the station and have an officer sign off on the “fix-it ticket.”
That’s when Bartlett made the comment about having just voted on the “biggest raise possible” for police, and asked Cole: “This how you repay me?”
“Sir, don’t make this personal,” Cole told him. “It’s not.”
“It is personal,” Bartlett answered. The officer gave him his citation and encouraged him to “drive careful.”
Thursday, Bartlett declined to answer specific questions about the traffic stop. Instead, he provided a written statement to Berkeleyside.
He said he was “was rushed and en route to an event at City Hall. I was pulled over by police and like many professional black men, I felt the need to immediately identify myself as a professional and as a civil servant to avoid being profiled and to protect myself. In hindsight, I realize that what I said was not appropriate. The officer was professional and rightfully issued me a traffic ticket. I’m glad she did her job. Going forward I will practice patience. My response could have been better, but I’m human. I will continue to support the local police and rededicate myself to reforming interactions between officers and the community.”
Bartlett, who has deep roots in South Berkeley, was elected to the City Council in 2016. This year, he ran an unsuccessful race for the Assembly District 15 spot that will open in November. Bartlett has been a passionate advocate during his brief time on council for finding ways to recognize the area’s rich history and investigate solutions to address gentrification and homelessness.
Worthington described his colleague, during a brief interview Thursday, as someone who has “brought a lot of positive new ideas to the city.” He said Bartlett uses a “commonsense approach” in his efforts related to diversity and helping low-income residents.
Berkeleyside learned of the traffic stop recording last month from a city employee who believed Bartlett’s conduct was problematic. Berkeleyside sought information about the stop via a Public Records Act request in late July. Initially, the city turned over some documents from the stop but declined to release the audio. Berkeleyside appealed that decision with the help of an attorney, and received the audio file Tuesday.
Police redacted personal information from the recording using tones, but otherwise provided the complete audio file.
City spokesman Matthai Chakko said this week that it is “common practice” for officers in Berkeley to make audio recordings of traffic stops. (Unlike many other agencies, police in Berkeley do not wear body cameras, though they are expected to launch that program soon.)
Chakko confirmed Wednesday that Bartlett had already gone into BPD to take care of the ticket.
As to the question of why the officer did not issue Bartlett a citation for running the red light, Chakko said officers have the discretion to decide when to issue a warning, and how best to encourage safe driving.
“That officer responded professionally throughout that conversation,” Chakko said. “She handled that situation very well.”
Attorney: “It’s not becoming of a public official”
Several attorneys said Thursday that the interaction primarily raised questions of ethics and judgment, rather than those of legality.
Robert Stern, an expert on political ethics who was president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies from 1983 until 2011, when it closed, said there appeared to have been an obvious ethical violation during the stop.
“Clearly he is using his position to try to get out of a ticket,” Stern said. “It just shows absolutely poor judgment to be making all those statements as a council member.”
Stern said it didn’t sound like anything illegal had happened, though it’s possible there was a violation of city policy due to Bartlett’s statements about the closed-session contract vote and raise. Telling the officer he had called her boss was also an issue, though it didn’t rise to the level of a threat, he added.
“It certainly raises ethical questions. It raises judgmental questions,” Stern said. “I’m sure the voters will be reminded of it during the next election.”
Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a nonprofit focused on government accountability, said state law does not prohibit officials from saying how they intend to vote — in public or in private. The Brown Act — a state law that deals with government transparency and public meetings — does, however, forbid anyone in closed session from later disclosing what was said by others.
But Francke said vague references to a large raise probably weren’t specific enough to be considered a leak of confidential information.
“The point of what he’s saying, is, ‘I really went to bat for you,'” Francke said. “I just don’t think that’s what the Brown Act is concerned about.”
Emelyn C. Rodriguez, a Sacramento-based attorney specializing in governmental ethics and open meeting laws, agreed that the comments the official made during the stop were certainly unethical.
“It is really problematic in terms of how this person responded in a moment of frustration and maybe self-interest,” she said. “It’s not becoming of a public official.”
But she said, in her opinion, references to the raise discussed during closed session meetings about contract negotiations could, in fact, be a violation of the Brown Act. It’s the type of behavior that might be referred to a grand jury or trigger disciplinary action.
“If the other side knows what your bargaining issues are, or what your final deal is — where you’re willing to draw the line — it puts the public at a disadvantage,” she said. “That this person would take confidential information and provide it publicly to someone who is not entitled to it …. that’s something that public agencies really can’t afford. Especially in these difficult economic times.”
Update, Aug. 24: Friday, Bartlett posted an apology on Twitter about his behavior during the stop, writing, “I was stressed and started overreacting and stupid things. I’m incredibly sorry. I’ve distracted us from all the important work we have to do. It’s an honor to get to serve you. I apologize from the bottom of my heart.”
I was stressed and started overreacting and stupid things. I’m incredibly sorry. I’ve distracted us from all the important work we have to do. It’s an honor to get to serve you. I apologize from the bottom of my heart.
— Ben Bartlett (@BenBartlettCA) August 24, 2018