Police accountability is needed for the people of Berkeley

coloredited_kathleengao_police_accountability_file
Kathleen Gao/File

Two very different amendments to the Berkeley City Charter have been proposed to address misconduct within the Berkeley Police Department and the national problem of police killings of innocent people.

Berkeley police attacked peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in 2014, sending several to the hospital. They promised not to do that again. Then they forcefully broke up peaceful Urban Shield protesters last year at a City Council meeting; in the aftermath, a retired teacher was left with a concussion and bleeding from his head.

None of the officers were held accountable.

Early this year, Berkeley’s Police Review Commission, or PRC, drafted an amendment to rename itself and make minor changes to its operation.

This amendment, including subsequent changes made by the mayor, would not give the PRC any additional powers over officer discipline nor allow it to specify new training, weapons, procedures or policies.

City Council voted July 10 to “direct the City Manager to move expeditiously in the meet and confer process” with the Berkeley police union about this amendment.

Meet and confer is a process in which the city consults with the union before making any changes affecting the police department. This has to occur before City Council can place the amendment on the November ballot to be potentially enacted by the voters.

Our Campaign for Police Accountability citizens group drafted an amendment at about the same time, to replace the appointed PRC with an elected Police Accountability Board. This board would have full authority over the Berkeley Police Department: discipline, training, weapons, procedures and policies.

This would be very similar to Berkeley’s school board and rent board, which are independent elected boards with management authority over their departments.

Our amendment has the support of many people experienced in confronting police misconduct, including Tony Platt, a distinguished affiliated scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Law and Society; Bobby Seale, the co-founder and former chair of the Black Panther Party; and Alison McCrary, the executive director of the National Lawyers Guild’s National Police Accountability Project.

Despite this extensive support, the City Council’s supposed desire to correct police misconduct and even a city of Berkeley portrait of Seale in front of the Council Chambers, the council never seriously tried to work with our group.

We began collecting signatures in February to place our amendment on the November ballot as a voter initiative. Most of the Berkeley voters we spoke with signed the petition, and many shared with us their personal stories of bad experiences with Berkeley police.

Hundreds of Berkeley voters signed the petition, but we didn’t have the resources to collect the 12,000 signatures required or to hire a signature collecting company. So our amendment didn’t qualify for the November ballot as a voter initiative.

City Council could easily have placed our amendment on the ballot along with the amendment from the PRC/mayor and let Berkeley voters choose the one they wanted. The League of Women Voters was already scheduling public discussion forums for September to debate the relative merits of the two approaches.

The council didn’t care that police accountability experts supported our amendment, nor that hundreds of Berkeley voters took the time to sign our petition. Instead, it prevented voters from having a choice this year.

We believe Berkeley voters want real reform, not just a minor adjustment to Berkeley’s ineffective PRC. We plan to build up our organization and start collecting signatures again, this time for the June 2020 ballot.

Unfortunately, this will result in a 19-month delay in getting real reform in Berkeley and a similar delay in helping other cities around the country do the same thing, at a time when American police killed nearly 1,000 people last year.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of people our police have killed is about five times the number of people who died during those attacks.

Many of the people killed by police were unarmed and innocent of any crime.

We believe elected police accountability boards across the United States can save a hundred lives every year by changing the training officers receive and the procedures they follow.

In the past, communities have been largely excluded from the process of establishing training and procedures, and the result has been training and procedures focused primarily on officer safety and convenience.

Officers are trained to shoot to kill anyone they feel might be a possible threat to their personal safety, with little regard for the actual danger of the situation. The results of this training are frequently seen in news stories about police killing innocent people.

With an elected Police Accountability Board, the community and the police will be equally involved in the development of training and procedures. Officers will only start shooting as a last resort, when there is no other way to protect themselves.

In addition to saving lives, this will improve cooperation and respect between police and the community, and it can benefit everyone.

Russ Tilleman is an activist for responsive government and green design. He is currently a candidate for Berkeley City Council District 8.