Police Review Commission reform is vital for Berkeley

Strengthening community oversight of our police department is vital for ensuring more equitable policing outcomes and increasing trust between the Berkeley community and our police. The proposed “Berkeley Community United for Police Oversight Ballot Measure” presented to City Council on March 27 was not perfect. I had concerns and suggestions. I’m sure many of my colleagues did as well. However, we do the community a disservice by not taking the time to discuss and debate this pressing issue.

That said, I am pleased to hear that a Police Review Commission, or PRC, subcommittee is working on a revised ballot measure for City Council consideration. Moving forward, I want to clearly lay out what I consider to be the most vital aspects of a PRC reform ballot measure.

Independence from city manager

For our PRC to be truly effective it must be independent. The PRC is currently under the city manager, who also oversees the Berkeley Police Department. The same office cannot oversee both our law enforcement officers and the commission tasked with monitoring them. PRC staff should report directly to the executive director hired by the PRC, not the city manager.

Guaranteed funding

The continued funding of the PRC must not be fully subject to the whims of the council. While the council must have some discretion as to the exact size of the PRC budget, the charter should require that the council allocate sufficient funds for the continued and full operation of the PRC.

Increased professionalism

Currently, councilmembers and the mayor each appoint one member of the PRC. While I deeply appreciate the excellent job that our current commissioners have done, this process leaves the PRC too dependent on the council, and too subject to the influence of political pressure. Instead, the majority of the nominations for commissioners should come from civic organizations such as the NAACP and the ACLU. The PRC should also be able to send applications to the council itself. Council members should not be able to unilaterally remove PRC commissioners.

Disciplinary authority

Currently, the PRC cannot make recommendations to the chief of police regarding disciplinary measures that should be taken at the culmination of its investigations. While we recognize the need to give the chief deference when imposing discipline, the PRC should at a minimum be able to recommend to the chief what it finds to be the appropriate response to misconduct, based on its investigation.

Inspector general function

The scope of the PRC’s purview is currently limited to investigating individual complaints against specific officers, rather than systemic problems within the department. We know that individual racial biases are only one part of our national policing crisis. Systemic, programmatic issues are a huge factor, and are going unaddressed in our current system. The PRC must be empowered to review patterns of the use of force, compliance with laws, discrimination and other systemic issues within the department.

Changing standard of evidence to ensure community trust

The PRC currently uses the “clear and convincing” standard of evidence in its investigations of officer misconduct. The standard most frequently used by other police review commissions is the “preponderance of the evidence” standard. Changing this standard will make it easier for our residents to get access to justice, and give them more trust that their concerns are being addressed. We must remember that the PRC is not engaging in criminal investigations, but rather employment matters.

Expanding the time window to impose discipline

Currently, an officer can only be disciplined for misconduct within 120 days of the city becoming aware of the officer’s actions. Achieving justice can be a long process, and must be thorough and complete in order to ensure that all parties have their rights and needs addressed. The PRC needs to take careful action; we must allow the commission enough time to take that care. That’s why the timeframe should be expanded to 360 days from 120.

None of this is to suggest that we have anything other than a great police department in Berkeley. We must recognize, however, that our PRC has remained unchanged since it was created in 1973. In the meantime, new innovations and standards for police oversight have come to the fore, including from nearby oversight bodies like BART’s. These changes are part of a national trend toward greater accountability and transparency from our law enforcement officers. While Berkeley is a deeply progressive community, we are not immune from the racial disparities that lie at the root of our nation’s history. Strengthening our Police Review Commission is something we must do to ensure that every resident of Berkeley can feel that their city is serving them.

Kate Harrison is a city council member and a representative for District 4.