Faces of Berkeley: Meet Sahana Matthews, the student appointed to keep Berkeley police accountable

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Doug Smith/Staff

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Sahana Matthews comes from a family of chemists. Both of her parents are chemists, her grandparents were chemists, her twin brother is studying chemical engineering at USC, but for Matthews, police accountability is her specialty.

On Jan. 10, Matthewsled her first meeting as the chair of the Berkeley City Council’s Police Review Commission after just four months on the commission. Matthews, a junior political economy major on campus, said that growing up in a family so distanced from the humanities has been a struggle.

“I actually worked at my parents’ chemistry lab starting in middle school and throughout high school,” Matthews said. “I really enjoyed it, but it didn’t excite me. … I think mainly the reason I realized it wasn’t for me is because I know how passionate my family is about it. I mean, they can talk about chemistry for hours.”

Matthews, in contrast, was selected for a position on the PRC after a council member she was interning for, Kriss Worthington, realized how passionate Matthews was about increasing police accountability in Berkeley. Worthington nominated Matthews for a position as a commissioner at the end of the summer.

“I’ve always wanted to go to law school,” Matthews said. “Public defense has always been my dream job. Either law school or nonprofit work with prison reform.”

The commission is composed primarily of older community members from diverse backgrounds, and Matthews is the only undergraduate currently serving on the commission.

During one September meeting, the commissioners were discussing a “Right to Watch” order, which sought to provide an outline of the rights the public has while observing police. The commissioners went back and forth on several small amendments to the order, with one commissioner remarking that the coherence of the order had been lost with all the maneuvering.

Out of the back and forth, Matthews offered an amendment to the order that both clarified the overall message and took into account the concerns of several commissioners. This amendment was eventually unanimously accepted.

“I was told most new commissioners don’t say anything, … (but) I ended up adjusting an amendment,” Matthews said. “I was super nervous about it, and I felt really bad afterwards, but at the same time I thought, I am not holding back, and I felt good about that.”

During her time on the commission, Matthews became close with former chair George Lippman, who Matthews said took her in and helped her out during her first few months on the commission.

“The PRC does have a lot of different opinions, and I feel like I am one of the more moderate voices, which made me a good candidate for chair,” said Matthews on her recent appointment to chair.

Although Matthews wasn’t at the meeting when she was elected, she heard commissioners were excited to see her bring a fresh new take on the issues brought to the PRC.

“I didn’t realize how difficult it would be, just because if I didn’t step up and control the conversation, the conversation would keep going, and we wouldn’t get anywhere,” Matthews said. “I thought, OK I need to step up.”

Matthews said her family members are excited about her new position and now understand what she wants to do with her life in a way they didn’t before.

“It was always the joke like, ‘Oh, Sahana isn’t taking any math classes,’ ” Matthews said. “But I think definitely me being on the PRC has shown them that I can actually do something with this, and they are very excited about it and think it is super cool.”

Kate Tinney is the lead crime and courts reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @K_Tinney.