Opinion: Berkeley needs to move decisively to address the racial disparities in policing

From 2012 to 2016, black and Latino civilians were twice as likely as whites and Asian-Americans to be subjected to a police stop that yielded no enforcement action. It is taking too long to figure out why.

Letter sent to Mayor Jesse Arreguín and the Berkeley City Council:

We the undersigned organizations ask that you move decisively to address the racial disparities that have been outlined in reports by the Police Review Commission and the Center for Policing Equity.

It is no contradiction to acknowledge the great work and the courage of BPD officers in keeping the community safe, and at the same time to spotlight a key area for improvement: the department’s statistics, and corroborating anecdotal testimony from African Americans and Latinos, showing a different, troubled relationship between the police and communities of color.

We applaud your referrals to the city manager and police department in November 2017 and April 2018.  These referrals took note of the CPE’s report that in the period from 2012 to 2016, Black and Latino civilians are twice as likely as Whites and Asian-Americans to be subjected to a police stop that yields no enforcement action, neither an arrest nor a citation—a disturbing ratio that remained just as high in 2018.  CPE also reported use of force disparity —  force was used against black civilians at a rate 9.1 times that of white civilians compared to their respective populations in Berkeley.

Your referrals gave staff until the fall of 2018 to report back on BPD progress on the following tasks:

  • Track the yield, stop, citation, search, and arrest rates by race, and report findings annually, with the first report due in September 2018; and
  • Convene a broad-based task force in May 2018 to work for a year to create an action plan to “detail measures to address racial disparities.”

Our concern is that none of these milestones has been met to date.  In October, Chief Greenwood promised a report in March.  Now that deadline has been missed as well. We look forward eagerly to this long-awaited report, with the hope that it responds to the totality of your referral.

We share with you a commitment to social justice and equal treatment under the law.  We offer our unique perspective as civil society groups rooted in grassroots constituencies.  Our members of color report upsetting stories of unwarranted stops and humiliating searches, some with alarming frequency.  While the majority of Berkeleyans do not have these experiences and are surprised to hear about them, it is distressing that they are a fact of life for many African Americans and Latinos.

Community members report their children being treated differently from white children for minor offenses like jaywalking or skateboarding on the sidewalk.  A grandmother and a minister are pulled over for non-existent broken tail lights.  On numerous occasions, a car of African Americans is stopped and all passengers pulled out, handcuffed and searched.

Staff points out that the number of complaints to the BPD or to the Police Review Commission are few in number, but part of the reason is that people of color believe making complaints is pointless or risky.  In Berkeley we are fortunate to have the raw police-stop data posted online, so we can observe the statistical disparities.  To illuminate this contradiction, we call to your attention a recent report from California’s official Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory (RIPA) Board.

“California police report almost no racial profiling,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.   This attempt to track racial profiling statistics statewide, “produced numbers so unrealistically small that the board overseeing the tally wants departments to make changes to encourage more people to come forward….Under current standards, people who lodge formal complaints generally must use their name to report concerns….And often they must go to a police station and fill out a form.”

A Plumas County sheriff’s deputy quoted in the article said that the low numbers don’t reflect reality.

“He and others blamed conservative reporting policies that leave out informal complaints, coupled with ‘complaint fatigue’ by people who are too frightened to complain or believe they’ll be ignored.  [A Sacramento police spokesperson said] ‘we actually get a lot more [complaints]….’  But the department counts only formal complaints…omitting what it calls informal inquiries.”

For the staff response to your directives to have integrity, it must begin by taking these community concerns seriously.  As you mandated a year ago, an action plan must be created by a task force with broad community support, taking into account the valuable and balanced recommendations of the Police Review Commission and the Center for Policing Equity.

Please do not dismiss this letter as an indictment of the police department.  An investigation must be undertaken to determine the source of the disparate treatment so a trust relationship can be built. Without racial justice in public safety, the Berkeley we are struggling to create cannot emerge. Our organizations will continue to follow these issues very closely to ensure that the staff and City Council meet their obligations.


Berkeley Citizens Action, Steering Committee

Berkeley Progressive Alliance

Berkeley NAACP

McGee-Spaulding Neighbors in Action

National Lawyers Guild S.F. Bay Area Chapter

Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club Coordinating Committee

Oakland Privacy

American Friends Service Committee

ACLU Berkeley/NorthEastBay Chapter

Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
East Bay Citizens for Action

Mansour Id-Deen is president of the Berkeley NAACP, Elliot Halpern works with the ACLU of Berkeley and the North East Bay, Rivka Polatnick is chair of the criminal and racial justice committee of the Wellstone Democratic Club and George Lippman is vice chair of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission (for identification purposes only).