The documents released this week about Kayla Moore’s death in 2013 merely reminded Berkeley community members — once again — of the complete lack of power that police oversight commissions have.
Moore was a 41-year-old Black transgender woman with a history of mental illness who died in police custody in February 2013. Her death sparked controversy and outrage from the Berkeley community and allegations of police misconduct, racism and transphobia. Still, the Berkeley Police Department’s internal investigation found that none of the officers involved were at fault.
A few months later, the Police Review Commission — the only external group in Berkeley responsible for regularly scrutinizing the city’s police — found that one officer exercised improper police procedure that night. But documents The Daily Californian recently obtained through a California Public Records Act request show that a judge declared the commission’s findings “unfounded” a little while later, calling its logic “fallacious.”
While it is well within a judge’s rights to rule on the commission’s investigation, what’s astounding is that the commission’s findings would never have reached the public if not for documents leaked to the Daily Cal in 2014. And in a letter to the city, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said the commission’s function “appears to be purely advisory.” But quite frankly, what good is an oversight commission that can do nothing but advise?
Although police departments conduct their own internal investigations for misconduct cases, independent oversight commissions are essential for ensuring that all allegations are taken seriously. But if a commission has less power than the department itself, then that check is nonexistent. The Police Review Commission’s decisions must have authority over the police department, and commissioners should have the same power as city officials. Without that institutional power, the commission’s findings can be easily dismissed or ignored by the very department it investigates.
Even if the judge had upheld the commission’s findings, an absurd statute of limitations would have prevented any disciplinary actions from being brought against the officer in question. A memorandum of understanding between the city and the Berkeley Police Association protects an officer from facing disciplinary action more than 120 days after an incident occurred.
It’s unrealistic and improbable to expect any comprehensive investigation to be concluded within that timespan, so this time limit effectively prevents officers from being disciplined for any wrongdoings. The city must extend this time limit to align with every other city in California, which would allow officers to be disciplined up to 365 days after a reported incident.
The city’s lack of response after Moore’s death displays the gaping holes in the justice system. If there’s no outside group consistently overseeing the police, then police brutality and misconduct are allowed to continue — unpunished. This issue is hardly restricted to Berkeley — the lack of police accountability persists across the country in cases such as Trayvon Martin’s and Stephon Clark’s. To help solve this nationwide issue, Berkeley must do its part.