Police face questions, criticism with presentation of report on December protests

Ariel Hayat/Senior Staff

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Members of the public and city commissioners questioned a Berkeley Police Department report Wednesday, with some saying the report misrepresented events during the December Black Lives Matter protests.

The report, released Tuesday, called for increased resources when dealing with future protests and a shift in tactics from crowd control — practices such as deploying tear gas and skirmish lines — to crowd management, which includes using social media and negotiators. BPD Chief Michael Meehan presented the report at a public meeting of the Police Review Commission, or PRC, on Wednesday, where some members of the public criticized police for lacking accountability and failing to prevent escalation during the protests.

The report had 32 recommendations, including improving the officers’ awareness of developing situations, making deployment of police resources more efficient and increasing the quality of equipment for communication with protesters.

The campus’s Black Student Union objected to allocating more resources to BPD, including new equipment or staff, according to a letter read at the meeting. Additionally, Alison Bernstein, chair of the PRC, pointed out that there was little mention of the Black Lives Matter protesters’ intentions and motivations.

“Failure to include that really undercuts the historical validity of the report in a way that undermines the meaningfulness of the recommendation,” Bernstein said at the meeting.

Meehan, however, disagreed with claims that the report misrepresented the events of the protest.

“It’s important to remember what the report is,” Meehan said. “It was a narrative of events and lessons learned for police officers, not lessons learned for protesters. It was not a retelling of each protester’s story.”

Andrea Prichett, a member of Berkeley Copwatch — an activist group that monitors police action — felt that many of the recommendations were either disingenuous or failed to address the police force’s shortcomings during the protests.

“As you read the list of recommendations, some are very good, but sadly, they’re very obvious,” Prichett said during the meeting.

One of the most important takeaways in the report is the differentiation between crowd management and crowd control, according to Sgt. Dan Montgomery.

“We want to deploy more traffic control because right now, when people look over their shoulder, they often can’t see any officers,” he said. “We want people to be able to look over their shoulder to look at police and see them.”

The report encouraged increasing the number of bicycle officers, using negotiators to enhance communication with crowds and limiting the deployment of skirmish lines.

Carol Denny, who lives near the Wells Fargo Bank that was vandalized at the intersection of University and San Pablo avenues, said the report did not seem to reflect what she and her neighbors saw.

“There weren’t any police anywhere,” Denny said. “I was resentful that we had to risk our lives to save our homes.”

The report said officers should be allowed to use helicopters in instances of significant civil unrest, which is currently prohibited by a 1982 Berkeley City Council resolution.

According to Meehan, officers were unable to keep track of munitions such as tear gas and other nonlethal weapons during the protest because officers do not do daily inventories.

Commissioners questioned the effectiveness and propriety of strategies the police adopted, specifically concerning the use of tear gas in the area of Telegraph Avenue between Bancroft Way and Durant Avenue.

BPD Lt. David Frankel responded by saying that the quantity of tear gas used — and when to stop using the tear gas — was based on squad leaders judging the effects on the crowd. Decisions were made in the field by people continuously reassessing the situation, making it hard to judge their decisions after the fact, he said.

Prichett said a major fault of the police was leadership’s failure to coordinate mutual aid resources and understand community values.

“My major complaint is that the police chief is unwilling to acknowledge that individual officers’ conduct and commander tactical decisions escalate the protest and provoke the crowd,” Prichett said.

George Perezvelez, acting chair of Wednesday’s meeting and vice chair of the PRC, said there were “some key elements that were not truly fleshed out” in the report.

The commission is working on its own report of police conduct during the protests, which is set to be presented before City Council on Aug. 10. According to Perezvelez, the PRC’s recommendations will spell out details not included in the police report, such as the specific propriety of use for each element of force in different circumstances. These recommendations will be discussed at the commission’s Wednesday meeting.

“Our interest in doing this investigation is to look at what went wrong, what we can put in place so that next time it is done much better and give the department the tools it needs to work,” Perezvelez said. “There has to be a balance between First Amendment rights and the ability of the police department to make the community feel safe.”

The police have already acquired five new higher-quality video cameras, in line with the report’s recommendations. According to Montgomery, BPD would like to obtain body cameras but would need funding for data storage and equipment.

BPD plans to incorporate more resources on its website that detail how to safely and legally carry out protests, such as guidelines for staying out of police officers’ safety zones and avoiding confrontation, according to Meehan.

Contact Trevor Greenan and Tianyi Dong at [email protected].