Berkeley City Council hears suggestions to reimagine public safety

photo of police cars
Ben Mefford/Staff
To discuss findings collected over 14 months from the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform regarding public safety, the Berkeley City Council met at a special meeting Thursday.

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The Berkeley City Council met in a special meeting Thursday evening to discuss suggestions from the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, or NICJR, for “reimagining” the city’s public safety.

The findings reflect 14 months of work between the institute and a city task force as part of the George Floyd Community Safety Act passed in July 2020. Executive director of NICJR David Muhammad led a presentation of the institute’s findings and recommendations for Berkeley.

“We hope this is the start of the process of liberation and implementation,” Muhammad said during the meeting.

To reduce the reliance on law enforcement within the city, NICJR recommended a pilot program of tiered dispatch to respond to emergency calls, according to its presentation to the council. For calls reporting nonviolent crimes, the institute suggested the city contract with community-based organizations, or CBOs, to respond either alone or in conjunction with the Berkeley Police Department.

According to NICJR policy analyst Amir Chapel, the institute found that traffic stops are the primary type of call BPD officers engage in. Should officers be limited to responding to “serious” or “violent” crimes only, they would be able to improve their case clearance rate, enhance their existing investigations and potentially save millions of dollars to be reinvested in the city, Chapel added.

Many Berkeley citizens have indicated previously that there are situations that do not require police response but that need to be addressed, Chapel said.

“Community members have already determined they didn’t need a police response,” Chapel said during the meeting. “But they wanted a response in some form or fashion.”

To improve existing law enforcement, the institute recommended multiple measures to increase police accountability. These included revising the BPD Use of Force policies and developing a progressive police academy for the Bay Area that allows recruits to develop psychological skills and a “guardian mentality” to respond to incidents.

Finally, the NICJR encouraged the City Council to reinvest in the surrounding community. One suggestion was a guaranteed basic income program for Berkeley, which would provide $750 per month for families with children who make less than $50,000 a year.

The reinvestment plan also attempts to address poverty, houselessness and education, among other issues, in addition to increasing funding for CBOs with the money saved through the previous two categories.

Many Berkeley residents support the proposed changes. More than 80% of survey respondents indicated they wanted trained mental health providers to respond to calls related to mental health or substance usage; more than 80% also said they would prefer houselessness service providers be able to respond to calls related to houselessness.

Most council members expressed enthusiasm for working through the suggestions in the city moving forward, regardless of individual discrepancies with certain recommendations.

The council plans to meet April 12 for the city manager’s report on the recommendations.

Contact Sebastian Cahill at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @SebastianCahil1.