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While Berkeley police address racial bias, community reflects on need for reform

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NOVEMBER 29, 2018

In February 2018, former Berkeley City Council candidate and activist Nanci Armstrong-Temple was restrained and arrested by Berkeley Police Department officers while helping to move a homeless encampment in front of Old City Hall — an act she referred to as “outside of the law and definitely outside of human decency.”

Armstrong-Temple said she was asked to come to the homeless encampment as a legal observer and help move items. When she got into her van to help transport the encampment, she alleged that police officers “attacked” her and were initially violent. Armstrong-Temple said she is suing the city of Berkeley for the arrest — an incident she, as a Black woman, refers to as racial profiling.

“They arrested me with no regard for my personhood or safety or autonomy and with no criminal activity happening at any point,” Armstrong-Temple said. “I’m not an expert, but I would call that racial profiling.”

According to a report by the Center for Policing Equity presented in May, Black individuals are 6.5 times more likely to be stopped by BPD while driving and 4.5 times more likely to be stopped by BPD while on foot than white people. Another report by the Police Review Commission reveals that while Black residents make up less than 10 percent of Berkeley’s population, they are six times more likely to experience police use of force than white residents.

BPD efforts to reform

According to BPD Sgt. Veronica Rodrigues, BPD is enacting several training programs to limit racial bias and profiling among officers. In an email, she pointed to the “Fair and Impartial policing” program, designed to address implicit biases. Other BPD initiatives include the principled policing program and de-escalation training, which “teaches police officers how to use time and space to defuse potentially violent situations.”

“The overall goal with all of these training programs are to resolve situations peacefully while seeking to build trust and strengthen our relationship with the community,” Rodrigues said in an email.

Berkeley City Council passed a measure in November 2017 requiring the city to develop police training programs that examine body camera footage from police officers. Under the measure, the city must also track yield rates, which show how often contraband is discovered out of all police searches that take place. The aim is to better analyze data when looking at reasons for unequal racial treatment.

Rodrigues said she believes racial bias from police officers is not a “huge” issue, but nevertheless something officers need to be mindful of to “reduce certain implicit biases each and everyone of us has.”

According to Rodrigues, the measure passed by City Council and the implementation of body cameras will be “great” additional tools and resources to both BPD and the community, especially because she said there is a lot of misinformation within the community surrounding video tapes depicting police encounters.

“(Body camera footage is) going to provide the community another ability or means to get a glimpse of what we do on a daily basis,” Rodrigues said.

Like Rodrigues, Councilmember Linda Maio said issues of racial bias from police officers do occur, but not “on a routine basis.” She stressed that it was the police department that requested body cameras, and that Berkeley police officers are continuously trying to improve their awareness about issues of racial bias.

“(BPD has) been focusing on this (issue of racial bias) for a long time,” Maio said. “We have one of the best police forces … in the entire country. We should support them.”

Maio has served as city council member for 26 years, according to her office, and she said she’s noticed the community’s growth in awareness since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement and widespread distribution of videos portraying police brutality. She added that such movements have “really lit a fire under every police department to do things differently.”

ASUC Senator Amir Wright emphasized the need for implicit bias training, as mentioned by Rodrigues. According to Wright, though body cameras are “a step in the right direction,” officers need training on how to interact with community members in a non-threatening manner.

Allegations of racial bias

Former Berkeley City Council District 7 candidate Aidan Hill, who uses they/them pronouns, said that as a Black individual, they’ve experienced racial bias from police officers firsthand.

According to Hill, in 2015, when they were riding their bike through UC Berkeley’s campus, a police officer stopped them and asked for their address. Hill said that because they were living with an undocumented person at the time, they told the officer they were uncomfortable giving out that information, and the officer gave them a ticket. Hill said multiple people were riding their bikes on campus, but alleged that the officer was racially motivated in only stopping them and not others.

Hill said they do believe the police department is taking efforts to reduce racial bias, but added that there is a culture within the modern police system that adds “more racial stress.”

Hill spoke about a recent incident in October, when UCPD officers arrested them on suspicion of obstructing a public officer and disturbing the peace during a UC Berkeley undergraduate political science class. Hill was waving campaign signs, filming the guest speakers and making comments out loud after given nonverbal and verbal cues by the professor to stop talking. When officers attempted to detain Hill, they dropped to the ground and had to be taken out of the classroom by the officers, according to student witnesses.

“Just the way they phrased that interaction didn’t respect the fact that I was a non-violent offender — that’s intimidation,” Hill said. “Had I looked anything else — had I looked like a white person — I don’t think that would have been their first (response).”

Both Hill and Armstrong-Temple raised concerns about BPD officers intervening in mental health cases. Hill referenced the 2013 in-custody death of Kayla Moore, a Black transgender woman with a history of mental illness. Moore’s roommate had reported that Moore was “violent” and off her medications. After BPD officers arrived and tried to restrain her, Moore pulled the officers down and fell onto her stomach, according to the internal investigation. The officers then observed Moore had stopped breathing.

Many allegations ensued, claiming the officers used force improperly, and Hill said that until BPD publicly apologizes, “we can’t truly heal.” Hill added that BPD should hire mental health responders, so that arrestees with mental health issues can first deal with psychiatrists instead of police officers.

Armstrong-Temple said she would like to see BPD Chief Andrew Greenwood show accountability for his actions.

“Police (Chief Andrew) Greenwood talks about how important it is to him that the Berkeley police are seen as ethical and responsible to the community,” Armstrong-Temple said. “If that is true, I would really like to see him consistent in the actions that he takes to show accountability.”

Contact Sabina Mahavni at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sabina_mahavni.

NOVEMBER 30, 2018

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