The Berkeley community needs better police oversight

Olivia Staser/Staff

Why must we choose between safety and security, on one hand, and our constitutional rights on the other? That’s like choosing between peace and justice, or freedom and democracy.

As a policing reform advocate, I think about this question frequently. Opponents to reform have been implying a number of these false dichotomies, especially as a reform initiative to increase community oversight of the police is potentially heading for Berkeley’s November ballot.

Berkeley Community United for Police Oversight, or BCUPO, has proposed a city charter amendment to replace the city’s Police Review Commission, or PRC, with a true police commission. The new commission will have the tools it needs to review complaints against individual officers and will set appropriate policies for the Berkeley Police Department, or BPD.

Opinion pieces started sprouting in the local media early this spring as a response to this proposal, denouncing the BCUPO initiative as harmful to the functioning of the police department — some called it “anti-police.” Opponents claim the proposal is a cause of declining force levels in BPD, and they decry it as a solution looking for a problem.

But the 2018 charter amendment proposal cannot possibly be responsible for a decline in the number of officers that has been occurring for years. It is specious to claim that police officers’ dissatisfaction with their jobs at BPD stems from criticism it receives from the public that it serves. My experience serving on the PRC has revealed to me that the discourse within American police forces mirrors the critical conversations of society at large.

BPD has committed institutionally to building legitimacy and trust in the police, directly enhancing public safety. Four key pillars of procedural justice include ensuring voice, respect, neutrality and understanding to all civilians who encounter the police. Yet there is great potential for improved communication between police officers and accountability advocates in the shared pursuit of fair policing.

Whether it is the BCUPO police commission charter amendment or another proposal that goes on the ballot in November, it is critical that the amendment incorporates three key elements:

  1. Access to internal BPD data that is relevant to the commission’s work, to be held strictly confidential by the commission and its staff.
  2. Independence from the city manager, because the supervisor of the police cannot objectively provide the entirety of civilian oversight for it.
  3. A strengthened role in department policy and oversight of police practices.

A crucial aspect of modern, community-oriented law enforcement is independent civilian oversight of the police. Civilian oversight is a standard of good police governance that is emerging across the United States and Europe. We trust our police with special powers to use reasonable force, and by the same token, police departments must afford transparency and accountability.

The BCUPO-proposed charter amendment initiative is not anti-police. The coalition maintains that the most effective policing is constitutional policing, which respects the rights of the community. In a letter to City Council, Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission said, “Enlightened police leaders understand that independent civilian oversight is a critical part of fair and impartial policing.”

The Peace and Justice Commission also referenced an article in the Police Chief magazine, written by Pamela Seyffert, a captain at the Sacramento Police Department. In the article, Seyffert states that civilian review boards can help build a community’s trust of law enforcement, which in turn would help interactions between the community and the police and make neighborhoods safer. Seyffert goes on to say that if law enforcement leaders accepted civilian review boards, officer morale could increase as policies could improve, and they could even receive better acceptance from civilian communities overall.

Berkeley is a diverse community, and all segments of the public have a constitutional right to unbiased treatment by the police. Unfortunately, the police department’s own records show that Black and Latinx residents are stopped and searched much more frequently than white residents. Enhanced civilian oversight of the police will help ensure that the needs of all communities are protected.

George Lippman is a member of Berkeley Community United for Police Oversight and the vice chair of the Police Review Commission.