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Berkeley's police-community relations imperfect but improving

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FEBRUARY 24, 2015

A number of people have asked my thoughts on how to improve police-community relations in light of the tragic events in Ferguson and Staten Island and the controversy over Berkeley police crowd-control tactics in the Dec. 6 protests in the city.

Regarding the police response Dec. 6, I believe we should not rush to judgment. We know that a small minority of protesters hurled dangerous objects at police, smashed store windows and committed assaults against other protesters. Some people say the attacks on police happened after police moved aggressively against demonstrators, and other people say the police efforts to disperse the crowd began after the violence by some protesters began.

We don’t yet have all the facts before us. The Police Review Commission is investigating what happened, and the Berkeley Police Department also is conducting an investigation. The reports are expected in the near future.

I do believe our police department is one of the best in nation, and I am proud of the remarkable job our officers do across a range of challenges, from responding to serious crime to dealing with the homeless. I also am gratified that our department has recently completed the Fair and Impartial Policing training, which focuses on preventing racial profiling and other types of bias based on race, gender or other factors not related to criminal activity.

At the same time, I recognize that one or more officers — because of stress and provocation — may have stepped out of line. I believe any officer guilty of wrongdoing should be subject to appropriate disciplinary action.

The high quality of our police department and the police-related actions taken by the City Council on Feb. 10 don’t mean our task is done. We can and should do more. We obviously face a deeply rooted problem found in many communities. It’s clear that a large percentage of people in the black community, in particular, are alienated from law-enforcement agencies. Statewide survey results released last month by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only 13 percent of blacks believe that “blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment as whites in the criminal justice system,” compared to 51 percent of Asians, 37 percent of Latinos and 43 percent of whites.

I think we all agree on the need to foster improved police-community relations, and I believe that several of the ideas that have been discussed over the past two months deserve serious consideration in Berkeley. These include:

  1. Body-worn cameras for police officers. (On Feb. 10, City Council requested the Police Review Commission to work on a plan for police body and dashboard cameras.)
  2. More community engagement by police officers, including participation in recreational programs with youth, so that officers and residents get to know each other better, break down stereotypes and build trust.
  1. A program that would allow high school students to explore law enforcement as a possible career option.
  1. A follow-up on the City Council action Feb. 10 endorsing the National Demands from Ferguson, asking the Alameda County District Attorney to investigate all in-custody deaths and issuing a statement of concern and support for people of color affected by injury or death by law-enforcement agencies.
  1. Possible standardized general orders for police mutual aid in Alameda and Contra Costa counties (and possibly a statewide approach to standardized general orders).
  1. Calling on district attorneys not to use the grand jury for determining whether to indict officers accused in police shootings.

The list above is not meant to be exclusive. I want to continue to explore other options and am eager to hear suggestions on what we can do at the local level.

In my view, the broader problem we face is not isolated in the relationship between law-enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. All of us harbor racism and bias, often unconsciously, and the national conversations we are having after Ferguson and Staten Island are playing an important role in bringing these issues to the forefront of our attention.

As the causes are long-standing and complex, I believe the solutions likewise won’t be achieved overnight and must be realized in multiple areas focusing on equality for all in attitudes and opportunities. I’ve been asked how this issue relates to students’ lives and interests. I especially hope that students — with their energy, passion, idealism and ability to generate fresh ideas — will join in our efforts to promote equal treatment, not only in the criminal justice system but also in education, employment, housing and health.

I would like to hear from Daily Californian readers and other members of the community about what else we can do in Berkeley to improve police-community relations as well as police crowd-control tactics during protests.

Tom Bates is the mayor of the city of Berkeley. He can be contacted at [email protected] Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

FEBRUARY 24, 2015