Opinion: Making Black Lives Matter right here in Berkeley

If Berkeley Police Department wants to distinguish itself from the vile practices of the Minneapolis Police Department, it needs to address racism and racial bias within its own department.

Berkeley Police have a strong media game, no doubt about it. Listening to Chief Andrew Greenwood or reading his press statements, one could be forgiven for thinking that everything is fine with Berkeley Police and that brutality is just something that happens somewhere else.

Recently, the Chief wrote a public letter related to the killing of George Floyd. Witnesses even reported that they saw BPD members “taking a knee” during a protest. It seems so progressive, and yet…while media images are one thing, actions are quite another. If Berkeley police leadership and the department really want to differentiate themselves and show they are “at odds” with the type of policing that killed George Floyd, then they must stop ignoring the concerns and demands that members of Berkeley’s Black community and others have been making for years.

Greenwood seized this historic moment to publicly brag about the BPD without exhibiting any real understanding of why people across the nation are so outraged or why this moment is such a watershed event. He refers to the “death” (not murder) of George Floyd as being “inexplicable.” Well, we can explain it: George Floyd was murdered by a racist cop who has relied for many years on his white privilege and status as a cop to conceal his abuses and shield him from justice. The community, however, knows only too well how their trust has been betrayed over and over again.

“Seeing far-away officers’ actions (and inaction) undermine our department’s collective efforts to build and maintain community trust here in Berkeley is extremely frustrating for all of us here at BPD,” writes Greenwood. Well, Chief, imagine how frustrating it is for people in your very own city who have been trying to tell you that the failure of BPD to operate with transparency and accountability has already seriously eroded the public trust in BPD. Consider:

  • BPD has NEVER accepted any responsibility for their part in the death of an African American transgender woman named Kayla Moore in 2013. Just like George Floyd, Kayla Moore died after Berkeley police officers sat on top of her, reducing her supply of oxygen. A better word might be murder. Moore’s family is appealing a federal court decision that the police did not use excessive force.
  • Concerns about racial disparities in Berkeley’s policing have been met with denial and delay since 2014 and BPD leadership has yet to even acknowledge that racial bias is a problem in the Berkeley Police Department, in spite of an independent investigation by the Center for Policing Equity that found otherwise.
  • BPD refuses (or is unable) to produce and publicly release reliable data about the amount of force used by its officers or any other data-based metrics by which to evaluate police performance.
  • By its own officer’s accounting, 35% of what Berkeley Police do is respond to people having some kind of mental health crisis or who are living with a mental health disability. Despite having a tiny fraction of the training that mental health professionals receive and being vastly more expensive to deploy, Greenwood has told me directly at various Police Review Commission meetings that he will not consider civilianizing some of the mental health responses.
  • In 2018, as a PRC commissioner, I proposed that the City Council ask the Auditor to conduct a “performance audit” of the BPD to establish which if any positions could be staffed by professional civilians (mental health care providers) at great savings to the department and the city. It was not acted upon in any way that I am aware of. I found out that a similar audit had been conducted in 2002. Apparently, the recommendations in it were not enacted.
  • Increasingly, BPD refuses to release even basic information about arrests, police reports, or information about how it spends its near $70 million budget. Meanwhile, it uses selective releases of information to serve its own political agenda.
  • The Police Review Commission complaint process has become so procedurally biased in favor of the police that it is now rarely used. If, after a biased investigation giving police every advantage and a process that allows the officer to see information that the complainant is not allowed to see, the person somehow succeeds in getting the board to “sustain” the complaint, it can be thrown out by the chief of police. This is not oversight.

The continued refusal of BPD leadership to respect calls for accountability even when issued by our City Council suggests that BPD and its leadership do not truly submit to our local civilian authorities. Years of cover-ups, from Sgt. Cary Kent’s spectacular theft of drugs and money in 2007 from the BPD evidence locker to Sgt. Fleming’s systematic shakedown of dozens of arrestees, BPD has its own history of crimes committed under the color of authority. Sure! Add the link and mention that Fleming has been rehired and currently serves on BPD.

If Berkeley Police Department really wants to distinguish itself from the vile practices of the Minneapolis Police Department, then it needs to address racism and racial bias within its own department, open up the door to transparency, allow incidents of police misconduct and criminality to receive a just hearing and consequence, and allow the community to provide direction about the kind of policing and police practices that truly reflect our community values. If the Minneapolis Police leadership had listened to the community and acted earlier to hold former Officer Chauvin accountable for the complaints made against him, George Floyd might be alive today.

Andrea Prichett is a member of Berkeley Copwatch and former Police Review commissioner.