The recently released data report on Berkeley Police Department’s vehicle stops and searches — indicating an excessively high number of stops and searches of underrepresented minorities — represents a manifestation of larger national trends and a lesson: Even liberal Berkeley is not immune to racial biases.
When comparing the demographics of the races of drivers stopped with the demographics of the city of Berkeley, blacks are vastly overrepresented. Although the population of Berkeley is approximately 8 percent black, black individuals constituted about 31 percent of stops and more than 50 percent of searches — even though only 31.1 percent of such stops ever led to citations or arrests, compared with a rate of 60.4 percent among white individuals. When the number of stops is juxtaposed with how often legal action is taken, it would seem that the police force’s actions constitute racially discriminatory practices.
This isn’t the first time that concerns about Berkeley’s policing policies have arisen. In June 2014, Berkeley City Council adopted its Fair and Impartial Policing Policy, mandating that BPD take down the apparent race, gender, age, cause and outcome of all traffic and pedestrian stops. The policy attempts to curb biased policing by holding officers accountable through the documentation of data for public record.
Although the policy was implemented almost a year ago, the delay in data collection means there were only seven months included in the data, even though the policy should have spanned a year. While we understand that there might have been difficulties implementing new collection practices and barriers as a result of using new technology, the fact still stands that it required a very recent Public Records Act request by a coalition of civil rights activists to discover this and publicize it, rather than BPD’s own initiative.
And even though BPD has been collecting racial data on traffic stops for the past 15 years, it has never released this data, neglecting to keep the public informed of the department’s internal reporting processes. Although the numbers may be perfectly innocuous, BPD’s failure to release them ultimately keeps the public in the dark and hinders trust and transparency between police and the community.
A police force’s job is to serve and protect the state. This job places police officers in a precarious position of power in the community they are morally and legally obligated to defend. As the few members of society legally allowed to use force on a daily basis, police officers must hold themselves to a higher standard and actively check their own power before it ultimately causes them to perpetrate the injustices they are responsible for preventing.
BPD needs to recognize and respond to these potentially problematic biases. While BPD Capt. Cynthia Harris accurately points out that “everyone has implicit biases, not just officers, and we must be aware of them,” police officers must be far more aware of these biases, given their position in society, and work to correct them internally before they act on them.
Despite BPD’s pride in being known as “the home of the father of modern law enforcement” and in implementing a code of ethics to combat discrimination in policing practices before most other police departments on a national level, this data should force the department to realize that, regardless, it needs to reexamine the consequences of its actions.