Opinion: Racial disparities in policing must not be brushed aside

Racial disparities in policing in Berkeley are well documented, and in fact, are worsening. City management must act soon to address these and other concerns.

The recent Berkeleyside article “As staffing crisis continues for Berkeley police, officers who left reveal why” raises serious concerns about officer morale, but brushes off community concerns about racial disparities in policing that are well documented, and in fact are worsening, along with other concerns.

We believe that the people of Berkeley have spoken clearly through their council representatives that they support updating the Berkeley police department (BPD) policies, addressing racial disparities in police interactions, and establishing truly independent oversight. We will work together with the mayor, council and city manager to achieve the goals stated above and to enact reforms passed by council.  As we begin a new year, we will strive to attain higher democratic principles for the good of the community and the department.

At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015, protesters successfully sued the department to overhaul its use of force policy. That same year, a coalition including the local National Lawyers Guild, NAACP, and ACLU uncovered significant evidence of racial disparities in BPD stop data.

In 2015, then-BPD Chief Michael Meehan acknowledged the pervasiveness of bias in every institution of society, including policing, and committed to working with the NAACP, ACLU and police review commission (PRC) to implement a fair and impartial policing program. He published police stop data online and engaged expert data analysis with the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) in order to understand the causes of the disparities. The CPE report found:

“[c]ompared to White individuals in Berkeley, Black individuals were nine times more likely per capita to have force used upon them … these disparities are not explained by poverty, neighborhood crime rates, or neighborhood demographics, and are not attributable to chance. These disparities, like the disparities in BPD pedestrian and vehicle stops, are unexplained, and warrant further investigation.”

The council, responsible for police policy under the city charter, forged a thoughtful path: it sought to revive reform efforts while simultaneously addressing the officer shortage.  Council recognized that responsibility for disparities does not fall solely upon the police and that policing outcomes in Berkeley are better than in many other cities.

We will continue to fight for the full participation of the entire city of Berkeley government in the effort to engage fair and impartial policing. Issue areas where we need to see improvements are:

  • Chief Greenwood’s June 2017 effort to delay the release of the CPE policing data analysis report.
  • The year-long (and continuing) delay in fulfilling the 2017 council mandate to report all uses of force.
  • In October 2018, the city manager disregarded council’s deadline to report on efforts to address racial disparities.
  • There has been no effort to date to convene the broad task force mandated by council to develop an action plan for fair and impartial policing by spring 2019.
  • Berkeley’s 2018-2019 strategic plan doesn’t provide performance metrics for racial equity in policing.
  • BPD has not prioritized hiring a data analyst to ensure full implementation of the city’s fair and impartial policing policy.
  • Council’s proposed charter amendment for an independent police commission has not materialized, due to the delay in the city manager’s meet and confer process with BPD officers’ union. This action prevented the charter amendment from being placed on the 2016 ballot on a timely basis. Meet and confer must be completed in the very near future.

We believe that it is a necessity for the City Council and city manager to close ranks to ensure that our elected officials exercise full authority to oversee the Urban Shield debate and the BPD training and their broader police-related policy purview. [1]

Regardless of the bureaucratic headwinds, we cannot afford to brush aside the continuing impact of racially disparate policing on African Americans and Latinos. The BPD’s 2018 statistics still show that African Americans were two and a half times more likely to suffer police stops that did not justify even a citation, compared to white civilians. This data corroborates accounts of multiple Black and Latino Berkeleyans. Unwarranted stops are not simply an inconvenience; they bring a cascading series of negative effects on people’s lives, legally, financially, and psychologically.

We can see from the CPE analysis and anecdotes from our fellow citizens suggesting that white civilians have a generally positive experience with police, while civilians of color tend to have a more negative experience.

Since we do not yet know if the root cause of disparate treatment lies with the behavior of a subset of the officers, or an overall problem of BPD policy or training, the next step in addressing disparate treatment has to be a serious investigation of its causes, as recommended in the CPE, PRC and Council reports.

The roll-out of body cameras, community meetings, and updated training are welcome developments, but cannot substitute for institutional reform. Neighboring jurisdictions including the city of Oakland, city of San Francisco and BART have begun implementing new policies for a 21st century era of policing; most require internal reporting of substantially all uses of force; Oakland and San Francisco have a civilian review process that does not report to the city manager/administrator and have substantial access to internal information from, and influence over the police department. The city has the resources to enact the recommendations for fair and impartial policing proffered by the CPE and the PRC. The Constitution requires that communities of color receive equal treatment before the law. In the coming year, the ACLU, NAACP, and many other organizations will be watching closely to see that the mayor and the City Council hold city management accountable for implementing constitutional requirements and the City Council’s directions.

Mansour Id-Deen is the president of the Berkeley branch of the NAACP, Winston Burton is the vice-president, Elliot Halpern is a board member of the ACLU Berkeley/Northeast Bay (for identification purposes only),George Lippman is the chair of the Peace and Justice Commission (for identification only), Willie Phillips is a member of the Friends of Adeline; Laura Babbitt is a community activist, Moni Law is a Berkeley resident.