Berkeley’s Police Review Commission clashes over December protest report

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Ariel Hayat/File

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Members of Berkeley’s Police Review Commission clashed with one another and attending police officers at a Wednesday meeting as they attempted to finalize their report on the December Black Lives Matter protests.

The report was meant to be finished by Aug. 10, but the PRC now plans to finish by Dec. 1, which would allow for five additional meetings. Although commissioners managed to finalize three recommendations and several findings regarding the protests, they clashed with police over recommended restrictions on less-than-lethal munitions and clashed with one another over police access to armored vehicles and the characterization of early police action during the protests as not being aggressive or confrontational.

Over the last few months, the PRC has been finalizing a report on the Black Lives Matter protests in Berkeley, as tasked by Berkeley City Council. At Wednesday’s meeting, the commission also voted to support current restrictions on police usage of helicopters during civil unrest.

The PRC also recommended a ban on over-the-head baton strikes as well as further restrictions on officer access to a type of less-than-lethal munitions, such as foam bullets, in protest situations.

Capt. Dave Frankel from Berkeley Police Department said that less-than-lethal munitions were an “intermediate use of force” and that banning them from use in crowd-control situations seemed like a way to restrict their use to only life-and-death scenarios.

According to BPD Sgt. Spencer Fomby, crowd-control scenarios can be extremely different from case to case, and explicitly forbidding the use of less-than-lethal munitions in these situations would prevent officers from using them when presented with a threat of injury.

“It reads like you can only use it if someone’s about to kill you,” Frankel said at the meeting. “It’s like using your baton — you tell me I can only use my baton if someone’s about to kill me?”

The commissioners said that they support the use of less-than-lethal foam bullets in order to protect against specific individuals who threaten officer safety but that use of these weapons in crowded situations should be restricted.

“I have opinions on a lot of things, but this is No. 1 — this and the baton strikes over the head,” said commissioner George Lippman at the meeting. “You cannot be shooting into a crowd in the city.”

Some commissioners also objected to a line in the PRC findings regarding police action prior to the development of skirmish lines at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Addison Street. The original line in question read, “At this time and as the crowd approached no member of the Police department acted aggressively or confrontational.”

Opposition to the line was led by commissioner Bulmaro Vicente, who said that the portions of the protest he had witnessed did not support this statement and that he felt there was likely evidence to contradict it. Commission chair Alison Bernstein subsequently shut down discussion of Vicente’s involvement in the protest.

“Commissioners, it’s not necessarily appropriate to assert who was and who was not there on any given night, and I respectfully suggest that you have no idea who was anywhere on any given night,” Bernstein said during the meeting.

A vote to remove the line failed, but the commissioners decided to qualify it, saying it represented only the evidence they had been presented with.

Disagreement between the commissioners carried over to their discussion of police response to a recent armed robbery in Berkeley in which officers used an armored vehicle and dressed in camouflage uniforms. Bernstein called for a statement by the PRC recognizing the danger that guns pose to officers and the need for an armored vehicle in the future.

“Some of us know what it looks like to be hit with a semi-automatic weapon, and it looks like war,” Bernstein said during the meeting.

Vicente, however, criticized support for police acquisition of an armored vehicle as encouraging further police militarization, and Lippman said it disregarded the clear lack of public support for further weapons for and technology purchases by officers.

Commissioner Ann Rogers also objected, saying the PRC should not address this issue until it comes up in a policy or police request. The issue was later tabled, although not until after Copwatch member Andrea Prichett walked out of the meeting in protest, saying the discussion fed directly into police militarization.

Vicente also announced that this would be his last week on the PRC, as he will be serving as an ASUC senator during the coming year.

“I really want Berkeley to be an example of us making a strong, progressive police department,” Vicente said during the meeting. “I just want to acknowledge that most folks in this commission are white, and you all need to realize that your experiences are different than black and brown folks, and that was one of the reasons that I was here, to speak from that experience as a young Latino male.”

The next PRC meeting will take place Sept. 9.

Contact Trevor Greenan at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @trevor_greenan.