City Council approves settlement regarding police use of force in December 2014 protest

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Berkeley City Council approved a settlement Tuesday over a lawsuit alleging that Berkeley Police Department used force when handling demonstrators during the December 2014 Black Lives Matter protest.

According to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko, City Council came to an oral agreement in a closed session to settle the litigation, which was filed in November 2015. The decision came after the city’s and plaintiffs’ lawyers reached a conditional settlement more than a week earlier. Chakko noted, however, that both the city and BPD have been reviewing their practices and policies since the first night of the protest.

“This agreement that we’re talking about is a matter of crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s on policies that the city was already in the process of doing and completing,” Chakko said. “These are relatively minor elements to broader policy changes in training and other things that (BPD has) been working on for two years.”

Chakko said the city conceded to paying a total of $125,000 to the seven plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which included all the attorney fees and costs the city was willing to pay. Chakko alleged that the plaintiffs originally sought $500,000 in attorney fees alone and an additional $275,000 in monetary damages.

The city agreed to waive its fees and costs instead of pursuing them.

The settlement also dismisses claims to name a specific individual within the city — rather than the city as a whole — as a defendant, any class action allegations against the plaintiffs and attempts to appeal or refile the lawsuit, according to Chakko.

BPD will seek full implementation of a body-worn camera program, subject to council approval. Talks over implementing body-worn cameras in the police department have taken place before — with the city even entertaining the idea of a pilot program — but have historically been delayed due to a lack of funding.

“Because of the cost associated, we want to make sure when we implement it, it’s done correctly rather than (doing) it hastily and (buying) something that doesn’t work, or doesn’t meet our needs,” said BPD spokesperson Sgt. Andrew Frankel.

According to Frankel, the lieutenant in charge of overseeing this program is evaluating different technology and equipment options. Frankel added that BPD is trying to secure financial backing.

Chakko said the police department has applied to various federal grants but is also looking into city funding.

Additional policy agreements were made as part of the settlement. According to Rachel Lederman, a civil rights attorney who represented the plaintiffs, BPD will now be required to write use-of-force reports. If a police officer uses force in an incident, BPD will prepare a supplemental report describing the reason for its use, the location, the description of the victim and the type of force, according to Chakko.

“The students, faculty, families, people in wheelchairs, and other peaceful demonstrators will be relieved that their pain on December 6, 2014, was not in vain,” said plaintiff and campus alumna Moni Law in a statement from the Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. “We consider the settlement a victory for a better Berkeley, one that supports our diverse, engaged and outspoken community.”

The use of batons by police will follow the legal standards defined in the Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor, which requires that use of force by police be objectively reasonable. Chakko, however, said the city has followed the Graham v. Connor ruling since it first went into effect in 1989.

Chakko said police officers will be required to be more “mindful” when using less lethal munitions. According to Lederman, police will have to be more careful when using tools such as plastic and rubber ammunition because of the increased risk of hitting an unintended target because of unexpected crowd movement.

For mass arrests, officials are allowed to consider citing the group at the scene and releasing them afterwards.

“I hope that everyone’s learned from what happened in December 2014. … We especially need to learn these lessons now, with the Trump election and the high probability there’s going to be more of these demonstrations,” said Jim Chanin, Lederman’s co-counsel. “I think there are police officers of goodwill in Berkeley, and I think that these changes in policies and others should help them and allow people to protest as well.”

Contact Fionce Siow at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @fioncesiow.