Toward a Berkeley where all residents feel safe

CITY AFFAIRS: Recent police reforms in Berkeley mark significant progress in public safety, should be only the beginning of transformative change

Illustration of people building the Berkeley Police Station
Rachel Lee/Staff

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Following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers last spring — and amid an eruption of protests nationwide calling for an end to police brutality against Black Americans — Berkeleyans, too, called for a reckoning here at home. 

On Tuesday, Berkeley City Council answered those calls, adopting reforms requiring written consent for police searches and the firing of racist officers. To minimize racially motivated pretextual stops, officers will also be prohibited from enforcing minor traffic violations.

These efforts to chart a new course for public safety should be celebrated. 

No city in the United States is immune to the discriminatory origins and practices of policing. Here in Berkeley, deep racial disparities — in everything from traffic stops to jail bookings — reveal inherent biases of a justice system that has continuously undermined the safety of Black and Latinx residents.

Reforming an institution rooted in a legacy of state-sanctioned, extralegal racial violence will take a paradigm shift, both in police culture and public attitude. Already, various efforts at police reform across the country have failed to launch or proven unsuccessful. Berkeley will be forced to confront difficult questions — about transparent hiring practices, enforcement methods for low-level offenses, appropriate disciplinary measures for officer misconduct — in pushing for lasting change.

To this end, the lack of support from the Berkeley Police Association, which has criticized recent reforms, is disappointing. As current arbiters of public safety, officers should move beyond existing de-escalation tactics and other practices to back efforts stemming prejudice embedded in their work. That means viewing changes to job descriptions not as demotions but as shifts in responsibility. 

Habit and custom must never preclude progress. 

Still, under these new reforms, police will continue to operate in the city. As such, a lack of collaboration between council members and police officers on reform is a surefire way to quash important conversations before they can start.

This is not a call for compromise that will ultimately result in prolonged inaction. Rather, it’s a call for those with a shared mission — ensuring the safety of all Berkeley residents — to work together in a way that is fruitful and efficient and produces a decisive cultural shift. 

Berkeley must also recognize that, while these reforms are laudable, they are by no means radical or absolute. It’s crucial for City Council to further bold initiatives, including developing specialized mental health response teams, outlawing racially biased 911 calls and redirecting police budgets toward targeted community programs — all with an express purpose to support residents harmed by current police practice.

As we work toward a city in which all Berkeleyans feel safe, we must acknowledge the serious threat police bias and violence pose to underrepresented minorities, particularly the Black community. We must ensure bold police reforms are reflected in practice. And we must push, urgently, for more.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2021 opinion editor, Jericho Rajninger.