Berkeley police oversight measure struggles to secure spot on November ballot

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Alvin Wu/File

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A newly proposed police oversight ballot measure that aims, in part, to address racial disparities in policing is struggling to find its place on the November 2018 ballot.

Proposed by Berkeley Community United for Police Oversight, or BCUPO, the measure would abolish the Police Review Commission, or PRC, and create a new police commission, which would be composed of a group of 10 citizens who would oversee the Berkeley Police Department. At its March 27 meeting, Berkeley City Council indefinitely postponed discussion of the ballot measure.

If the measure is not approved by the council, it needs about 12,000 signatures from the Berkeley community to make it onto the November ballot. The new commission would be able to review the BPD budget and access records and data from BPD more easily.

“My interest is first of all around racial justice, and it’s been clear for several years from the department’s own data that there’s a different treatment of African American and Latino civilians as opposed to white citizens,” said BCUPO member and PRC vice chair George Lippman.

Lippman pointed to a report titled “To Achieve Fairness and Impartiality” released by the current PRC, which found that Black residents in Berkeley are six times more likely to experience police use of force than are white residents, among many other racial disparities.

BPD declined to comment on the subject.

According to Lippman, there has been no effective movement to address these racial disparities in policing, which is why he is interested in heightened oversight by the commission.

“The PRC is an oversight body, but its powers are greatly limited. It does not have the power to see any of the police department data other than what the city manager agrees to be shared with us,” Lippman said.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington agreed that PRC is due for reform, calling the existing commission “dysfunctional.” He added that he has tried to introduce milder proposals of reform that were recommended by the PRC three years ago but that those reforms were tabled by City Council four times.

“I’ve indicated a great openness to a wide range of ways, from mild fixes to very strong fixes. To me, the fundamental point is not ‘do we have the most perfect charter amendment.’ It’s ‘how do we fix most of the problems and restore the people’s faith and confidence that we have a system that can actually work,’ ” Worthington said.

Councilmember Kate Harrison, who said she wished the discussion of the initiative was not tabled, said PRC needs to change but that she feels as though this version of the BCUPO measure seems like an overreach.

“People are really working hard to find a path forward, and I think we will be able to come up with something that will benefit the citizens of Berkeley but will not be an overreach,” Harrison said.

According to Harrison, the new commission should not have day-to-day managerial control of the police department — instead, it should maintain its independence as a investigatory body. Harrison also said she believes that there is still a need for City Council involvement in BPD oversight, which the BCUPO measure does not provide for.

The initiative was “undemocratic,” “not worthy of discussion” and a “tremendous overreach” in the eyes of Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who said she thought that appointing civilians to the new commission would be problematic.

“There are people who go to school for years and are trained for years on how to run a police department, and to me, it’s outrageous that civilians with no training at all, just political appointment, would be in charge of the police department,” Wengraf said. “They would be in charge of a $66 million budget.”

Worthington, however, stressed the importance and urgency of placing BCUPO’s measure on the ballot. For any police reform at all to be on the ballot, Worthington said the city needs make sure to meet two upcoming legal deadlines: the “meet and confer” deadline and the Alameda County deadline to register to vote. If these deadlines are missed, Worthington says the reforms will have to wait for two more years.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Worthington said. “Two years is too long to wait.”

Contact Sabrina Dong at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Sabrina_Dong_.