Community doubts remain despite Police Accountability Board transition

Photo of Berkeley Police building
Theo Wyss-Flamm/File
The city of Berkeley’s Police Review Commission was created in 1973 to provide civilian oversight for Berkeley Police Department. In November 2020, local voters approved a charter amendment to replace the commission with the Police Accountability Board.

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As the city of Berkeley looks to implement the Police Accountability Board, or PAB, this summer to increase policing transparency and public trust, the community remains both doubtful and hopeful.

With the creation of the Police Review Commission, or PRC, in 1973, nine Berkeley residents were appointed by the mayor and City Council to provide civilian oversight for Berkeley Police Department by investigating complaints and advising legislative policies. In November 2020, Berkeley voters approved a charter amendment that would replace the PRC with the PAB.

“This is the long-standing desire of residents of Berkeley to make changes in our police with due processes,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Kate Harrison. “It passed overwhelmingly.”

Berkeley City Council is currently working on the appointment of PAB members, according to Harrison. Whereas members of the PRC were chosen by council representatives, PAB applications were open to the public and recommended nominees will be voted on by City Council in early June.

Members of the PAB must be Berkeley residents at least 18 years of age, with a requirement that they are not a current or former police officer.

“I’m looking for someone who understands disciplinary proceedings,” Harrison said. “We want to make sure … that they are an unbiased person. … I’m really looking for someone who is fair-minded and able to take in the facts.”

Harrison added that the PAB will be looking at racial disparities in police stops, and she noted her preference for candidates who can think critically about policing issues.

Several members of the PRC have applied for the PAB, such as commissioner Kitty Calavita, commissioner Michael Chang, commissioner Ismail Ramsey and commissioner Nathan Mizell, according to the April 14 PRC meeting minutes.

The amendment also creates the role of the director of police accountability, who will help with developing policy reports, supervising investigators and keeping the PAB organized, according to Harrison.

City spokesperson Matthai Chakko added that the director of police accountability will be responsible for implementing 40 hours of training for PAB board members that covers several topics including police practices and constitutional rights.

The budget proposal for the role is being developed by PRC staff and the city manager, and Berkeley City Council will vote on the final budget, according to Chakko.

Under the charter amendment, the complaint process has also been changed to give the PAB more time to investigate.

“(The PRC) haven’t done a lot of these disciplinary hearings, and sometimes, people will say, ‘Well, that means there’s not really a problem, and we don’t need them,’” Harrison said. “It means people didn’t trust the body.”

Additionally, Harrison noted she has heard from people in the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union who did not file complaints to the PRC over concerns that they would either not be heard or the process would not be productive.

The current lack of trust in the PRC’s complaint process was also echoed by Andrea Prichett, co-founder of Berkeley Copwatch.

Despite the changes in the complaint process, Prichett said she is taking a “wait-and-see” attitude and still has concerns about transparency and oversight.

“A police review process can go one of two ways. It can be used to shield the city from liability or can be used to protect the rights and safety of our community,” Prichett said. “It’s up to our city leaders to choose, sadly.”

Prichett added that although it can be good to document misconduct as a bureaucratic measure, she doubts that the PAB can bring about substantial changes in police behavior.

As the PRC works to transition to the PAB, the outreach subcommittee is planning on conducting an online survey to gauge how much the public knows about the complaint process.

According to Harrison, one of the aspects of the PAB budget is allocating money for more public outreach.

Prichett also voiced concerns over the large amount of overtime spending and called for a performance audit of the police department to understand how time is being spent.

Ever since fiscal year 2016, BPD’s spending on overtime has exceeded the allocated budget of about $2.2 million; in fiscal year 2020, the department spent a total of $7.6 million on overtime, and between July and December, the police department spent more than $3.4 million in overtime expenditures, according to PRC reports.

“We should also have accountability at the end of each fiscal year for what the police department spent, why the process that currently exists is … a look into the future how they want to spend their money,” Prichett said. “We need some oversight on the back end. How did you spend your money? Why? How do we make it more efficient?”

Taking into account financial considerations, Harrison said she is looking forward to lowering costs by moving functions away from the police, adding that the police and fire departments currently take up more than 60% of the Berkeley budget.

In addition to establishing the PAB, there are two large city efforts to decrease civilian interactions with armed officers.

One is the creation of a Berkeley Department of Transportation to take over parking and traffic enforcement. The other is the creation of a specialized care unit of mental health professionals who will be responsible for mental health and noncriminal calls.

“I just don’t understand why we’re not hiring people whose resume and experience matches the job we’re asking them to do,” Prichett said. “I know (police) have maybe eight hours of training, but that pales in comparison to what a real mental health professional is.”

The city is also looking at potentially evaluating officers’ social media content, as well as creating an early warning system that will pick up on officers with a high number of complaints.

In the long run, public trust and transparency are priorities for both community organizers and city officials.

“I’m looking forward to a more collaborative relationship,” Harrison said. “Our department has tried over the years to do things like community meetings and really reach out to the community, but there’s a persistent fear by some of our community of the police and we need to combat that.”

BPD declined to comment.

Catherine Hsu is the lead crime and courts reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @catherinehsuDC.