Berkeley Police Review Commission discusses prohibition of tear gas in crowds

Photo of Berkeley Police Review Commission meeting
Sunny Shen/Senior Staff
The Berkeley Police Review Commission meets June 26, 2019. At the meeting Wednesday, commissioners discussed the matter of allowing the Special Response Team to use tear gas in certain circumstances.

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After receiving community backlash for exceptions to tear gas prohibitions, at its Wednesday meeting the Berkeley Police Review Commission, or PRC, altered the language of the guidelines to clarify that tear gas is banned from use in crowd control and management situations.

This follows a June 9 Berkeley City Council meeting, during which City Council members banned police use of tear gas. At a July 23 meeting, however, the City Council referred to the PRC and Public Safety Committee the matter of allowing the Special Response Team, or SRT, to use tear gas in certain circumstances.

Current language allows for unauthorized tear gas use if delay could risk injury to citizens or police personnel and there is a need for immediate crowd dispersal. During public comment, a few Berkeley residents expressed disappointment over the allowance and mentioned the need for more specificity in policy language.

“I want you to contemplate your impact in this delicate moment,” said Berkeley resident Andrea Pritchett during the meeting. “Some of us are trying to work with City Council members to find a way out of this, this downward spiral of community deterioration and public trust.”

After discussion of the item, PRC replaced the existing policy with language that states tear gas can only be used by trained SRT members during operations or in response to attacks.

Commission members also changed the policy to state that tear gas use by the Berkeley Police Department is prohibited in crowd control and crowd management situations.

“If in a crowd, no matter what threat we face, we will not be using tear gas,” said Police Lt. Spencer Fomby II during the meeting. “We’ll have to use other tactics because we don’t have tear gas.”

According to Fomby, even if there was an attack by an individual in a crowd protest situation, tear gas would not be allowed under this policy.

BPD Chief Andrew Greenwood updated commission members that as of Sept. 22, the former Downtown task force has officially transitioned into bike patrol. The group will consist of one sergeant and six officers who will work Tuesday through Friday in the Downtown and Telegraph Avenue areas.

According to Greenwood, BPD is also set to start training officers for bike patrols during special events and demonstrations, as well as in using an iPhone app to record stop data.

PRC also discussed BPD policies on questioning detainees regarding their supervised release status and conducting subsequent searches.

Under the proposed policy, officers would not be able to stop someone on the basis of recognition of a person on probation or parole. Instead, officers will need to have an investigative purpose and, at a minimum, “articulable facts.”

“It’s balancing the tools we want the department to have with civil liberties without swallowing the whole with the exception,” said Commissioner Michael Chang.

Contact Catherine Hsu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @catherinehsuDC.