The real Berkeley Police Department crisis is the lack of reform

In recent months, Berkeley Police Department has been sounding an alarm on what it sees as a department in crisis. The website for the department’s police union — Berkeley Police Association, or BPA — complains about a perceived lack of financial resources and accuses Berkeley City Council of not making its officers a priority. The association goes on to say that officers are leaving en masse for other departments or for retirement, citing anti-police sentiment among community members as a factor in this. But the truth is, the department is in crisis because of its own refusal to reform.

In 2016, the highest-paid police officer in Berkeley received $359,412 in pay and benefits. For a police department that complains about a lack of financial resources, one might think that a high six-figure salary is an anomaly for Berkeley cops. It is not. According to data compiled by Transparent California, 117 Berkeley police officers — more than half of the entire police force — took home $200,000 or more in pay and benefits in 2016. Seventeen Berkeley police officers received pay and benefits that exceeded $300,000, while the average pay and benefits for a Berkeley police officer was $198,156.

As a result, saying that BPD is underfunded is quite an incredible claim to make, especially when teachers in the Berkeley Unified School District only took home an average of $79,634 in pay and benefits in 2016. It makes sense that the average Berkeley police officer with 25 years on the force would want to retire when retirement would allow them to collect a fat pension of at least $150,000 every year until the day they die. Now, this is not to say that police officers should not be paid fair wages — all workers should be paid fairly. But when more than half of the employees were being paid over $200,000 a year in 2016, I find it quite insulting that BPA claims that its officers are not being paid enough, especially when some Berkeley teachers are struggling to pay for rent and food each month.

BPA is also worried about officers leaving to work for other police departments. On its website, the association claims that the department is affected by “anti-law enforcement sentiment,” which is causing officers to leave BPD for other agencies. The association goes on to claim that BPD is lacking resources found in many agencies across the country, such as a gang task force, canine officers, Drug Abuse Resistance Education officers, in-vehicle dashboard cameras and tasers — all of which, the association says, prevents its officers from providing the same level of service they have had in the past and from being competitive in hiring.

But from where I’m standing, BPD has proven time and time again that it cannot be trusted with more weapons and specialized units. If Berkeley police officers were equipped with tasers and pepper spray, how can we be sure that they wouldn’t be misused in a racialized manner? BPD has come under fire for many controversies in the past, including the use of tear gas at nonviolent protests and the aggressive handling of activists and people in the homeless community. Most notably, BPD faced backlash after Kayla Moore, a Black transgender woman, died in police custody — an incident in which the Police Review Commission found that a BPD officer had not followed appropriate protocol.

Enough is enough. BPD needs to change now. If an officer violates people’s constitutional rights, BPD needs to hold that officer accountable. The Berkeley community cannot allow racial profiling to occur — the community must be able to actually monitor police functioning. It is high time that BPD comes clean and produces documents explaining how much force is used, what police operations cost, who is involved, what the objectives are and any documentation that can prove that the $66 million budget set for BPD this year has actually had an impact on crime.

The Berkeley community must say “no” to any attempts to weaken what little oversight there is and demand that BPD begin the process of change. The stakes are too high for the status quo to continue.

Alex Li is a UC Berkeley junior studying business and political science as well as a facilitator for the Copwatch DeCal on campus.