After the resignation of police chief Michael Meehan, who couldn’t seem to balance the demands of his own police department with the demands of a hypervigilant community, it’s incumbent on the next chief to bridge a growing divide between Berkeley Police Department and city residents.
It’s not difficult to see where the new chief should focus their priorities — they should look no further than the Kayla Moore case making its way through the San Francisco District Court.
Moore, a Black transgender woman diagnosed with schizophrenia, died in police custody in 2013. After an internal BPD investigation found that its officers had done nothing wrong, an independent investigation pursued by the city’s Police Review Commission and leaked to The Daily Californian found the opposite.
And when Moore’s father sued Berkeley for the allegedly wrongful death, the city attempted to have the case dismissed. At the dismissal trial this week, City Attorney Lynn Bourgault stated that the officers acted in line with what they had learned in training. If this is true, it demonstrates that training for Berkeley police officers is woefully inadequate, particularly regarding mental health emergencies.
While police organizations continue to discuss Tasers and body cameras, the simple truth is that regardless of the tools they have at their disposal, officers without proper mental health training can’t be effective safeguards of this community.
While building officers’ understanding of how to assist in mental health crises will help officers avoid future injustices against the Berkeley community, rebuilding community relationships goes beyond that. The next chief of BPD needs to be open and honest about admitting to past wrongdoings.
Hundreds of Berkeley residents and UC Berkeley students were tear-gassed while protesting for social justice during the December 2014 Black Lives Matter protests, for instance. The police department can’t ignore the damage its overreaction did to its relationship with the community. To make matters worse, its internal investigation then cherry-picked facts and failed to include any consequential recommendations. Clearly, BPD was not interested in accountability.
But in a town where community scrutiny of and vigilance toward the police department is strong, the next chief of police has to know they won’t be able to get away with anything less than a full commitment to transparency and effective mental health training and practices.
At a time when police departments across the country are increasingly scrutinized, BPD has the opportunity to lead the nation by example.
Berkeley citizens’ ability to feel safe and respected means having police officers who are involved and active community members. It means having a police force ready and able to give nuanced responses to nuanced situations — not a force that bursts in, unprepared, amid mental health crises. It means having a force that speaks openly about its failures and successes. It means having a police force the community can respect.
Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Senior Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.