Berkeley City Council passes police reform amid national protests

City Council
Kristen Tamsil/File

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Berkeley City Council banned tear gas outright as well as police usage of pepper spray and smoke during the COVID-19 pandemic at a meeting Tuesday.

Racial tensions arising from the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery led the Berkeley City Council to consider police reform measures and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The City Council also heard a Zoning Adjustments Board case to build housing in West Berkeley.

The meeting covered a proposal to set aside a one-time allocation of $150,000 to establish the framework for an Office of Racial Equity. This measure, however, was met with backlash from members of the community who referred to it as “window dressing” that does not provide any real authority or responsibility.

“This office quite frankly isn’t needed to understand and realize how there’s not enough Black teachers, how there’s not enough Black businesses here in Berkeley,” said Robael Gizachew, a community member, during the meeting. “This is the time to act.”

The measure was eventually passed unanimously by the City Council.

The City Council also voted unanimously in favor of the city working with the local community to paint the words, “Black Lives Matter” and “Ohlone Territory,” on public streets.

The urgency measure, which directs the Police Review Commission and city manager to submit a revised use of force policy prior to the council’s summer 2020 recess, drew heavily upon Campaign Zero’s viral “8 Can’t Wait” project.

This item’s objective was to decrease the amount of police violence in Berkeley by up to 72% through banning the discharge of weapons at moving vehicles as well as requiring that officers use de-escalation tactics, exhaust all alternatives before using lethal force and report any use of threat or force.

Many members of the public supported this item, but argued that the City Council is not going far enough to limit police violence, adding that they thought defunding the police to reallocate funds to community projects and reimagining community policing would make Berkeley safer.

Other members, however, said they do not support completely defunding the Berkeley Police Department because they do not see valid alternatives to the current police department.

“Police put their lives on the line every day, but that’s a choice that they made,” said Councilmember Cheryl Davila at the meeting. “We really need to abolish the police and move on to something different.”

The City Council passed the “8 Can’t Wait” item unanimously, though Davila abstained from the vote.

The last police reform item for consideration by the City Council concerned the prohibition of tear gas and other chemical agents as a means of crowd dispersal during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the item, tear gas and other chemical crowd dispersal agents pose lethal threats that disproportionately affect Black people. Chemical agents also pose a threat of further COVID-19 spread because they cause coughing and sneezing, both of which increase viral transmission.

“Firearms. We can shoot people,” said BPD Chief Andrew Greenwood when Councilmember Susan Wengraf asked about alternatives to tear gas as a crowd dispersal technique at the meeting. “If we don’t have less lethal force to drive people back, then we are absent a tool.”

Greenwood later apologized for his statement and said it does not reflect his views of bringing “progressive service to the job.”

Davila proposed an amendment to ban tear gas forever, while other chemical agents such as pepper spray and smoke would only be banned during the COVID-19 pandemic. This amendment passed unanimously.

At the 6 p.m. special meeting that same night, the council also heard a Zoning Adjustments Board case to approve the rehabilitation of seven units and the construction of six units on Hearst Avenue.

Members of the community called in either to voice their support for building housing or to express their concerns about losing rent control, being displaced by construction and worsening of existing flooding issues.

The motion to deny the project failed by a vote of 7-2.

Contact Eric Rogers and Cathrine Hsu at [email protected].