City auditor reports on police audit to Berkeley City Council

photo of a BPD police car
Phillip Downey/File
At a Berkeley City Council meeting Tuesday, Jenny Wong, city auditor, reported the results of an audit of police response data. In response, the City Council discussed the findings and how they should inform the ongoing process to reform the city's law enforcement practices.

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Berkeley City Auditor Jenny Wong reported the results of an audit of police response data to the Berkeley City Council during its regular meeting Tuesday.

Initiated by the City Council as part of the “reimagining public safety” omnibus package passed in July 2020, the audit assessed the characteristics of police calls for service and the volume of calls related to homelessness or mental health emergencies, among other information. Following the report, the City Council discussed how the findings should inform the ongoing process to reform Berkeley’s law enforcement practices.

“Tonight, we’re getting a much better picture of the types of calls that our officers are responding to,” said Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani during the meeting. “It’s very important for us to chew on this information and understand how it connects to the reimagining public safety work.”

The audit found that, between 2015 and 2019, 55% of police service calls were initiated through Berkeley Police Department’s nonemergency line while 27% of calls were initiated at the officer’s discretion. Councilmember Kate Harrison noted during the meeting that this presents a “huge opportunity” to shift resources away from police and toward civilians as part of the reimagining process.

The report also found significant racial disparities in BPD’s stop data profiles, noting that Black individuals were stopped by police at a disproportionately high rate compared to their share of the overall population during these years. Black and Latinx individuals were also more likely to be searched following a stop.

“What we say in the criminal justice field is ‘the process is the punishment,’” Harrison said during the meeting. “The data clearly confirms what African American and Latinx residents have been saying for decades — our approach to traffic stops is broken and leads to discriminatory outcomes.”

Wong said the city auditor’s office was unable to accurately estimate the share of police calls for service related to unhoused individuals or mental health emergencies, citing a lack of relevant information in BPD’s published stop data.

Relying instead primarily on officer narrative reports, Wong estimated that about 11.7% of calls were related to mental health emergencies while about 6% were related to homelessness. She cautioned, however, that these are the “lower bounds” of those numbers and that there was “no good estimate” without the necessary data.

“I think this is extremely important, particularly as we are looking at creating a specialized care unit, to really understand at a granular level how much of our police officers’ time is spent responding to mental health-related calls,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín during the meeting. “What is the most effective way to use our limited taxpayer resources: investing in permanent housing to get people off the streets, or moving homeless people from location to location?”

Jacob Souza is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @jsouza_dailycal.