Let’s end the stranglehold of policing on ‘safety’

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The following views expressed by Nathan Mizell are his own and not reflective of the Berkeley Police Review Commission.

Few words are more synonymous with safety in the United States than policing. The habitual pairing of these two concepts has long bestowed a badge of unwarranted legitimacy on the practice of policing. From its early origins in England, policing has long been grounded in a need to maintain order. Today, we are tasked with asking ourselves two questions: For whom are police maintaining this order? And what was out of order in the first place that continues to require a violent force to suppress it? In Berkeley, as is the case all over the United States, maintaining order often means maintaining a racialized, class-driven status quo.

One might believe, at first glance, that Berkeley’s unique history in regard to policing would make us different. After all, we’re “progressive.” Berkeley was the first city to create a motorcycle patrol and require officers to hold college degrees. The Berkeley Police Department also hired the first Black American graduate out of the UC Berkeley School of Law and the first female college graduate trained in policing in the United States, both as officers.

But today, more than a century later (and after the entire sworn department received implicit bias training throughout 2014), what have all of these “firsts” produced in a city that purportedly maintains a level of progressivism unique to almost any place in the United States? A Berkeley police force that is 6.5 times more likely to stop a Black person who’s driving, 4.5 more times more likely to stop a Black person who’s walking and 20 times more likely to search a Black person, compared to their white counterparts. These searches end in arrest half as often as they do with white individuals. Perhaps even more damning is even when controlling for levels of crime and poverty and neighborhood demographics, BPD is 12 times more likely to use force on a Black person than it is on a white person. Twelve times. Whose vision of safety is this?

These statistics are frightening at face value, yet they point to a greater problem. Policing, even in Berkeley, does not garner safety so much as it garners freedom — freedom for those whose race has not been implicitly and explicitly criminalized, freedom for those of a certain socioeconomic status and freedom for those without mental or physical disability to easily ignore the systemic societal ills from which they benefit.

I consider myself part of this privileged group. While my dark brown skin offers me no favors in the eyes of law enforcement, my status as a UC Berkeley student and as a Berkeley Police Review commissioner insulates me from the worst effects of our racialized society. Most are not as lucky. The tiredness we in this privileged group may feel from an act of protest, the implementation of a policy or the formation of new praxis pales in comparison to the exhaustion of those who have no freedom to avoid the debilitating effects of a system that tells us a badge and a gun equals safety and anything else equals anarchy.

I am a big proponent of safety. We know safety is necessary across a variety of contexts and fosters better outcomes in virtually any measurable category. Fundamentally, it is not a question of whether we should have safe environments; it is a question of what methods we should use to foster safety that do not replicate the harms of our present white, ableist hegemony. In Berkeley, I propose four initial steps to formulate a safe society that accounts for everyone.

First, we must vote yes on the city’s Measure II this November, which establishes a stronger oversight agency to monitor BPD’s conduct. Berkeley’s current oversight body does not possess the necessary powers to hold police accountable. Currently, access to records is limited, investigations have razor-thin statutory timelines and misconduct findings require a standard of proof extremely difficult to meet. As frustrating as electoral politics often are, this is an easy step to take if you’re eligible to vote in Berkeley. As we navigate the existing system of policing, we must be able to hold it accountable as often as we can.

We must also support BerkDOT to ensure the creation of the city’s very own equitable transportation department — a proposal that, in part, aims to transfer traffic enforcement away from BPD — and other measures to re-imagine public safety. While Berkeley City Council passed an omnibus resolution in July with a variety of potential proposals, there is currently little in the way of a development or implementation timeline. Hold city leaders (including the city manager, who is tasked with implementing all policies in our city government) accountable by emailing or even protesting in person if necessary. Pretty words on pretty paper mean nothing if they are not put into practice.

If we are to put these changes into practice, we must also end policing’s budgetary stranglehold on public safety. Historically, BPD has represented more than 40% of the city’s general fund. This is unsustainable in any vision of re-imagining public safety.

Finally, it is equally important to read radical works on the topics of policing, public safety and beyond. Inform your next action with new knowledge. Too often, the work of Black radical activists and thinkers — especially Black women — are ignored. Grappling with the notion that you may not truly know what you think you know is uncomfortable but all too necessary. Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba and The Combahee River Collective Statement are good places to start.

Ultimately, true safety is not limited to “order,” but rather transcends it. Safety has no need for the coercive nature of order maintenance because a community collectively fosters its continued existence. Safety is not a gun or a baton but a bridge that is steadfast in its care and warm in its reception. Safety cannot simply grant freedom to a few: It belongs to everyone and so must recognize life in all of us.

Nathan Mizell is the vice chair of the Berkeley Police Review Commission.