Berkeley Copwatch holds community forum on alleged racist policing

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Phillip Downey/File
Berkeley Copwatch hosted a virtual forum highlighting five events of alleged racist policing in Berkeley during the pandemic.

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Update 2/8/2021: This article has been updated to include information from Berkeley Police Department.

Berkeley Copwatch, an organization formed in 1990 to “empower and unite the community to resist police abuse” through education and supervision, hosted a virtual forum Wednesday highlighting five events of alleged racist policing in Berkeley during the pandemic.

Andrea Prichett, an organizer of Berkeley Copwatch, introduced the panel of guests, which included Berkeley NAACP President Mansour Id-Deen, Berkeley Community Safety Coalition member Marc Stanton and co-Director of the UC Berkeley Organizing Project Alecia Harger. The panelists and other Copwatch volunteers analyzed incidents of alleged police brutality spanning from March 2020 to just last month.

“One of the things that we want to point out is that the misconduct by the police erodes the public trust here in Berkeley and undermines the ability of the police to make a positive contribution to community safety because their work depends on cooperation from the community,” alleged Copwatch volunteer Bekka Fink during the event.

The first incident Prichett described occurred last March when a man who was allegedly kneeling on the ground outside of a liquor store was shot by officers with a less-lethal weapon.

The man, later identified as 36-year-old Berkeley resident William Dean Brown, allegedly entered Sacramento Market to buy a cigar and repositioned a knife he had in his possession, Prichett said. A statement from Berkeley Police Department, however, said that Brown had threatened the store clerk with a knife, after which they called the BPD to report a disturbance.

As revealed by video footage of the incident shown at the forum, officers confronted Brown outside of US Liquors, and when told to lay on the ground, Brown kneeled.

After being shot with a less-lethal foam baton round, Brown was charged with exhibiting a weapon, resisting arrest and public intoxication, according to a previous article from The Daily Californian.

Prichett said she was concerned by the lack of information from BPD about the arrest, which was only released after Copwatch put out a press release with video footage of the incident April 8.

The next incident, which occurred the night of July 30, 2020, was introduced by Berkeley Copwatch volunteer Nikki Powell. According to Powell, BPD Officer Cheri Miller pursued 19-year-old Brandon Owens and two others who she suspected were involved in an ongoing theft.

As shown by a witness’ cellphone footage, Miller, weapon drawn, ordered the suspects to get inside their vehicle, which they did. As Owens attempted to drive away, Miller shot three rounds at the left front wheel area of the vehicle, according to a previous article from the Daily Cal.

According to BPD’s press release, Miller was put on administrative leave.

“In this presentation, we want to center the need for safety for Black youth in the streets of Berkeley,” Powell said during the event. “We are deeply concerned about the rapid escalation in the use of lethal force in an incident that began with teenagers in an alleged petty theft.”

Elana Auerbach presented the final case and described how on Jan. 2, Vincent Bryant, who Auerbach said is unhoused and diagnosed with mental illness, reportedly went to buy food at Walgreens on Shattuck Avenue.

According to Auerbach, Bryant retrieved food and left a dollar along with a returned item and its receipt on the cashier’s counter. When the cashier said he had to pay the full price of his items, Bryant tried to leave with the food but was stopped by locked doors.

When Bryant pulled out a bicycle chain, however, the doors opened, Auerbach alleged. He was met in the Tang courtyard by officers who had received a report of the alleged robbery and pulled out his bicycle chain again, according to a BPD press release.

Auerbach proceeded to play an audio clip of the radio dispatch indicating that the suspect may be unstable, as reported by an employee. According to Auerbach, 20 seconds elapsed between the sighting of Bryant to when an officer announced that less-lethal weapons were deployed.

Bryant was shot at point-blank range in the face and has had three surgeries to date, Auerbach said. According to the police report, the officer involved is on administrative leave and the incident is under investigation.

“As soon as I use that word ‘Black,’ I take away from justice and accountability,” Bryant said during the event. “It might not be now, it might not be in a year, but sooner or later there will be justice and accountability.”

BPD spokesperson Byron White added that the department plans to release a briefing video to inform the community of the officer-involved shooting.

Contact Dina Katgara at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dinakatgara.