Activism results in Berkeley police accountability measure for November 2020 election

PRC Meeting
Nirvana Ellaboudy/File

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After multiple years of activism, a police accountability measure will be on the November 2020 ballot.

If passed, the measure would amend the city charter and establish a police accountability board, which would replace the Police Review Commission, or PRC. The new board would have more power and independence from the city manager, according to PRC chair Kitty Calavita, and the measure would also establish a director of police accountability role.

“I hope the measure increases the power of the PRC, and the weight of PRC decisions in changing (Berkeley Police Department) policies and practices,” said former PRC chair Sahana Matthews in an email. “The PRC is a solid foundation for change, we just need to give the commissioners the power and tools to actually put their ideas into action.”

According to Calavita, the measure was a result of collaboration among the PRC, City Council, BPD and the mayor.

Matthews added that there has been a lot of activism from the community, as well as from the PRC itself, around this topic over the past couple of years, which sparked the City Council’s interest in the measure.

“The community has very strong influence on the PRC and the City Council, and I believe that this measure would not have been possible without the activism of the wonderful community members of Berkeley,” Matthews said in the email.

One of the main organizations supporting the measure and advocating for police accountability is Berkeley Racism and Criminal Justice Reform, or RCJR, according to Calavita.

RCJR member George Lippman said the new measure would provide more independence and power to the police board. He added that both independence from city management and the ability to access any police records the board needs are important parts of police accountability.

According to PRC member Nathan Mizell, the measure is a culmination of many Berkeley communities’ activism, which has gone on for “years and years.”

“With this issue now at the forefront of national dialogues, we know that the community will continue to vigorously advocate for this and will play a larger role in the election season,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín in a statement.

The RCJR group first advocated for reform in 2016, after the city of Oakland passed a measure that provided more police accountability, according to Lippman. While RCJR had proposed a similar measure in Berkeley, it had failed.

In 2018, the Berkeley community tried to get 12,000 signatures on a petition calling for an autonomous police accountability board, which would have created an accountability measure on the ballot. According to Lippman, this attempt also did not succeed.

The current measure, which was recently unanimously approved by the City Council to appear in the November election, went through a “meet-and-confer” process with the police union. This process is required when making a change to police officers’ working conditions, Calavita added.

The negotiating period, however, can cause significant delays and the “watering down” of proposed measures, Lippman said.

“Over time our commission’s powers have been eroded through state law and court decisions, resulting in a lack of trust in the process,” Arreguín said in the statement. “This measure will update our system to reflect 21st century best practices.”

There is still a lot of discussion needed on the topic of police reform and accountability, according to Lippman.

He added that many of these questions can be addressed if the measure passes in November.

“As a Black man in America, I understand the urgency in creating greater change — greater change than even this amendment may offer,” Mizell said. “This is not the full solution and that is not what we’re pitching, but it is an important step in the right direction.”

Contact Vani Suresh at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @vanisuresh_