Newest Police Review Commissioner Andrea Prichett hopes to hold police accountable

Daniel Chang/Staff

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Andrea Prichett is a divisive figure.

From her time protesting against South African apartheid in college to establishing the first all-volunteer community Copwatch organization, Prichett is no stranger to controversial issues. Now, as the newest member on Berkeley’s Police Review Commission, or PRC, she is ready to take this opportunity to establish her strongest position yet: police accountability.

Newly elected City Councilmember Cheryl Davila appointed Prichett as the newest 2016 PRC commissioner late last year. Prichett said she joined to try and change PRC structurally and fundamentally.

Yet her time on PRC has been off to a shaky start with other commissioners, often debating about what questions to ask Berkeley’s police chief and about her previous work recording police through Copwatch. In fact, at the March 22 PRC meeting, PRC chair Alison Bernstein called a “time-out” on the meeting after Prichett interpreted PRC’s Outreach Committee as trying to build business and create more complaints.

Prichett’s different perspective on PRC is influenced by her activist background as a founding member of Copwatch. Established in March 1990, the organization was formed to challenge policies that Prichett believes infringe on civil liberties.

Prichett said Copwatch helps the community by publishing reports and media footage compiled during policing incidences. But after 26 years of working through Copwatch, she decided the election of “progressive” Mayor Jesse Arreguín provided an opportunity for her to take on an additional role as a PRC commissioner.

“It seemed that change was a little more possible than it had been in the past,” Prichett said. ”I toyed with the idea (of joining the PRC) back in the ‘90s and felt my time was better spent focusing on Copwatch. But these days, we have some very competent volunteers holding it down in Copwatch.”

Prichett held many jobs in her 20s before helping found Copwatch and discovering teaching as a way of serving her community, she said. Prichett currently teaches eighth-grade history at Willard Middle School in Berkeley.

After graduating college, she heard stories of alleged police abuse toward homeless individuals and members of minority groups, so Prichett and other members of Copwatch decided to take it upon themselves to begin collecting a log of these stories. The first official Copwatch report described one instance in which an individual was allegedly wrongfully charged for possession of marijuana after he refused to provide his name to the police.

“Copwatch is a labor of love that I undertook when I was 26,” Prichett said. “We want police to come to expect that they will be watched directly.”

On the commission, Prichett’s priorities reside in building better transparency between Berkeley Police Department, PRC and the community, in part by creating a new model of civilian review.

Recently, Prichett said, she was unable to monitor police efforts because yellow tape had been set up to prevent individuals from getting close when she went to observe the disbandment of homeless encampments.

“It’s an ongoing struggle to maintain our right to watch the police,” Prichett said. “When a cop denies us a right to watch, (we) protest back.”

Prichett also wants the process of filing complaints against the police department to be changed because she alleged its current implementation is biased against complainants. In 2015, only one allegation of discourtesy against Berkeley Police Department was sustained.

For Prichett, the difference between Copwatch and PRC is the direct connection the commission has with the police department.

“I know some detractors that say I’m anti-police,” Prichett said. “I’m pro-accountability and that’s what I’m fighting for. … Maybe all the commissioners don’t feel that way, but I do and that’s what I’m bringing to the commission.”

PRC Commissioner George Perezvelez said he welcomes anyone with ideas, whether or not he disagrees with them, and hopes that all the commissioners treat each other with respect.

“The beauty of having different commissioners and backgrounds is that they bring a fresh discussion, come with new ideas and new possibilities,” Perezvelez said. “We will get to the end result that we need one way or another because, ultimately, we want what’s best for the city.”

BPD spokesperson Sgt. Andrew Frankel also said BPD looks forward to collaborating with the new commissioner.

Additional issues Prichett wants to address include mutual aid agreements, police mental health training and BPD’s budget.

“I wish the PRC would see its job as advocating for the people — as being an office of advocacy and assistance to the people — because the power differential between people and police is so great,” she said. “I think that members of PRC are ambivalent about effectiveness of work in their community. … Nobody can look at one sustained allegation and be proud.”

Gibson Chu is the lead crime and courts reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @thegibsonchu.