Civil rights leaders say Berkeley police disproportionately stop, search underrepresented minorities

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Students and city residents are criticizing Berkeley police officers for allegedly engaging in racial profiling during traffic stops, basing their findings on a seven-month period of data that showed black and Latino people were detained at a disproportionately high rate.

According to a coalition of civil rights activists — including the Berkeley NAACP chapter, Copwatch and the campus’s Black Student Union — the statistics, released at a press conference Tuesday, reinforce claims of discriminatory practices by Berkeley Police Department. The department, however, said in a statement that the data were too limited to draw any conclusions.

Coalition members made their findings by examining data they received in response to a Public Records Act request, which they said showed that 30.5 percent of police stops were of black people, despite making up only about 8 percent of the city’s population. More significantly, according to civil rights activists, the data also show that a large majority of black people who were stopped were not ultimately cited with any crime.

“There’s really only two things that could explain the phenomenon,” said Marcel Jones, a member of the Black Student Union and Copwatch, during the press conference. “One is malicious intent by the Berkeley Police Department to intentionally stop black people at a much higher rate or, secondly, that there’s something about being black that’s seen as innately criminal.”

BPD Chief Michael Meehan, however, said that the data do not equate to discrimination, racial profiling or bias, and that the causes of disparity were unclear.

The data were received after a records request filed in August, which asked for data collected by BPD under the Fair and Impartial Policing policy established in 2014. The collected information spans police stops from Jan. 18 to Aug. 12, although race was not recorded for 557 of the 5,215 stops reported.

The new policy requires officers to provide demographic statistics for pedestrian and vehicle stops. The policy was unanimously passed by Berkeley City Council in June of 2014 after allegations of racial profiling by some members of the community.

At the press conference, Jones discussed the number of civilian searches reflected in the data, highlighting that black and Latino people were more likely to be searched during a stop compared to white people.

“The men and women of the Berkeley Police Department do not, have not and will never tolerate discriminatory, bias-based policing,” Meehan said in a statement. “Such discrimination is illegal, it is not our practice and it is not part of our organizational culture.”

He pointed to the police department’s relatively high diversity, which was illustrated in a New York Times analysis that showed BPD had a higher proportion of black police officers than the city had of black residents.

Mansour Id-Deen, president of the Berkeley NAACP chapter who attended trainings for Berkeley police, said that if officers continued to engage in discriminatory practices, it was intentional. But BPD Capt. Cynthia Harris took issue with the idea that police officers intentionally exercised bias.

“I don’t know that a problem has been identified,” Harris said. “Training is for everyone, not just officers. Everyone has implicit biases, not just officers, and we must be aware of them.”

Jones, however, questioned the legitimacy of these responses. He invited members of the police department to present their own analysis of the findings to address the disparity in detainment rates.

“I’m curious what specific information they need in order to prove racial profiling,” Jones said. “It looks like they’re trying to find any excuse possible to not take responsibility.”

In response to the findings from the information received, the coalition of activist groups has made several demands, asking that BPD report statistical information quarterly, identify specific squads with potentially discriminatory patterns of stops and acquire body cameras for officers.

Civil rights attorney Jim Chanin extensively advocated the use of body cameras, saying that of all the policies implemented in Oakland, cameras made the largest difference in curbing allegedly discriminatory practices by officers. Harris said that BPD is hoping to obtain body cameras but does not have the funding.

Officers have been required to record statistics for vehicle stops for approximately the last 15 years, according to BPD spokesperson Officer Jennifer Coats. But the police department has never published this information. Chanin expressed concerns over past collection practices and the lack of reports on the information collected.

“It’s hard to know what they’re talking about collecting without actually seeing it, but if it supports the same conclusions we saw in this morning’s press conference, then they’re a lot worse than I thought for not proactively addressing this earlier,” Chanin said.

Also omitted from the data initially received by the coalition was information on pedestrian stops. According to Harris, the information has now been sent to the group.

Trevor Greenan covers city government. Contact him at [email protected].