Police Review Commission grapples with limited power as it works to fulfill mission

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As the Police Review Commission, or PRC, seeks to fulfill its task as Berkeley’s main police oversight body, it continues to face criticism from the community and grapples with its limited power.

The PRC was created in 1973 in order to ensure that police officers conformed to community standards. A nine-member commission composed of Berkeley residents appointed by City Council members and the mayor, the PRC exists to make policy recommendations and hear complaints against the police.

“Police Review Commission’s purpose has always been in our mission statement: … to create civilian oversight and trust between the Berkeley Police Department and the community,” said PRC chair Sahana Matthews. “I think that is one of the most important parts — to create trust, and also to review policies in the police department.”

The PRC holds both general and policy subcommittee meetings that are open to the public and encourages the public to provide feedback to make oversight a collaborative effort.

According to Matthews, oversight remains limited in Berkeley. She referenced the difficulties the PRC has had in reviewing police conduct.

“Specifically in Berkeley, there are issues surrounding our ability to make recommendations and see them through,” Matthews said. “Due to confidentiality, the complainant cannot be in the room during the officer’s testimony, but the officer can be in the room during the complainant’s testimony. … It mitigates the amount of trust and the resolution that can be made in those settings.”

According to Matthews, there are other community programs that also work within the realm of police oversight, such as Copwatch, along with other types of civilian oversight. Police Review Commissioner Andrea Prichett said there is also an internal affairs division within the police department that acts as a form of oversight. Matthews said the PRC is the only government-created body overseeing the department, however.

Nanci Armstrong-Temple, former City Council District 2 candidate, said there are currently activists who are engaged in oversight as well. She believes, however, that these groups do not have the power they need to hold the police completely accountable.

“I think that there are currently people who are very engaged in holding the police accountable, but I don’t think that our regulations, either in the city of Berkeley or law in the state of California, allow for a lot of power behind the efforts,” Armstrong-Temple said.

Commissioner Ari Yampolsky said that if he could change an aspect of the PRC, it would be to give the commission more power to formally influence police department policies and have a more robust, enforceable complaint review process.

In the past, City Councilmember Kate Harrison commented upon the issues she saw in the PRC, specifically that people are reluctant to go to the PRC because of authoritative issues — a problem that she said could be fixed by addressing underlying structural issues.

Despite the problems she sees in oversight, Armstrong-Temple believes that the problems in police oversight are not the fault of the PRC.

“I think that the PRC is working really hard to get transparency from the city of Berkeley and the police department. My experience with the current PRC is they do not let anything slide that is an actual or potential violation by the Berkeley police,” Armstrong-Temple said. “I think that the main issue is not that the PRC is not doing their work; it’s that the PRC is not being empowered to do the work they need to do.”

According to Matthews, though it is often a challenge to tackle all of the items on the agenda every meeting, she finds that the most rewarding part of being on the commission is hearing the different perspectives throughout the community.

Matthews said she thought it has been very powerful to have debates about oversight issues and that she is excited to work with passionate commissioners who want to make an impact.

“All the commissioners right now are extremely qualified, really do love this community and are really passionate,” Matthews said. “I’m very excited to be working with all of them. I think we have a really strong commission right now and a lot of people who are really dedicated to making change.”

Sabrina Dong covers crime and courts. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Sabrina_Dong_.