Modern day implications of BPD history and police tactics

Berkeley’s Police Review Commission, established in 1973, is thought to be the first civilian police oversight agency with investigative powers in the country.


Berkeley’s Police Review Commission, established in 1973, is thought to be the first civilian police oversight agency with investigative powers in the country. In the time since its creation, the Police Review Commission has been replaced by the Police Accountability Board (PAB), a board made up of appointed Berkeley citizens who review policing policy and individual complaints of police misconduct in Berkeley.

The PAB works with the Office of the Director of Police Accountability (ODPA), which supports the PAB by acting as its administrative secretarial support, in addition to hiring two full time investigators that conduct investigations into accusations of police misconduct.

The PAB has acted as a bridge between the community and the police, Hansel Aguilar, Berkeley’s Director of Police Accountability, explained.

The first police chief of Berkeley, August Vollmer, “is known as the ‘Father of Modern Policing’ for instituting innovations like mobile policing, and police departments around the country began to copy him,” wrote sociologist and biographer Julian Go in an email to the Jacket. Go is the author of ‘Policing Empires,’ a book exploring the history of policing in Britain and the US. 

Vollmer was also instrumental in creating a school of criminology at UC Berkeley, according to Andrea Prichett, a founder of Berkeley Copwatch. Berkeley Copwatch is an organization focused on monitoring police activity for misconduct.

The criminology school, Prichett added, “was meant to kind of advance policing techniques, try to make it more scientific, more evidence based,” Pritchett said. “On the other hand, it was still very based on race and this notion that there are certain populations that are more prone to criminality than others.”

Emilie Raguso, the Editor-In-Chief of the “Berkeley Scanner” and a crime reporter, explained the observed impacts of BPD emphasizing education.

“I do think for the most part, what I’ve witnessed is Berkeley historically required … officers (to have) more education than many police departments require,” Raguso said. “They put a big emphasis on de-escalation. So they will spend a lot of time trying to talk people down, as opposed to for the most part rushing in. I can always think of a counter example because I’ve been doing this for so long, … but they try to keep it calm and just talk to people … And I don’t know if that it’s maybe in part due to if you have people who have had other careers where they have more education.”

“He was credited as being something of a progressive,” Pritchett said when describing the national perspective of Vollmer. “I think there were times where the Berkeley Police Department did pride itself on being more professional, knowing that they required a college degree when a lot of departments didn’t even require an Associate of Arts degree … (Vollmer also) started to introduce things like using fingerprints to (thing likes) bicycle patrols.” 

Nikki Jones, a sociologist, criminologist, and professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley explained one of the negative impacts of an increase in police professionalism. 

“One of the things that commitment to professionalization has done has actually made police officers less accountable to the public because they have been kind of constituted as these experts of crime and safety,” Jones said. “What we’ve seen as police officers have been becoming more professionalized is that the concerns of the community … they’re dismissed by the police, police officers, and police unions, who tell us that they’re the real experts on crime and safety that is in their domain.”

Pritchett described another finding of her research on August Vollmers influence on policing. 

  “Going back to August Vollmer, one of the things that he was fairly influential in was bringing army tactics to policing,” Pritchett said. “ I think police have most definitely gotten militarized. And I think part of what that looks like to me is the idea that police don’t necessarily even come from the community that they’re patrolling. The police had taken on this kind of character of an occupying force.” 

In November of 2022, the BPD came under scrutiny when texts shared by a former officer on the BPD’s bike force showed bike force officers making racist and anti-homeless comments. Although the PAB’s investigation is still under way, Berkeley Copwatch released an investigation in January in which they provided data showing that one in two people arrested by the BPD between 2018 and 2022 were Black, in comparison to an 8 percent overall Black population in Berkeley. Their investigation pointed to this as evidence of  “extreme racial disparities in policing.”

“The city of Berkeley has actually had a really intensive examination of their policing practices and their approaches to community safety itself,” Pritchett said. “And they came up with a bunch of recommendations about how we could do things differently that might make better safety in our city (and) that might make people feel safer. I think there were some great recommendations there, but the city hasn’t really implemented them.”

According to Berkeleyside, Vollmer was also a eugenicist, and supported the belief of selective breeding of people to uphold certain ethnic and racial genetic traits. 

Jones explained that Vollmer’s eugenics beliefs are similar to what she would imagine many police chiefs having at the time period, due to the “prevailing ideology of whiteness and the prevailing racial ideology of the time.” Nevertheless, the effects that these ideologies had on policing is extensive, according to Jones, who pointed to “concerns over racial profiling and concerns over racially disparate practices or practical practices that have a disparate impact on communities of color” as lasting effects of Vollmer’s teachings.

“People can think that we don’t have those kinds of problems in Berkeley or San Francisco or the Bay Area, because we’re otherwise a liberal (and) thought to be a very liberal and progressive place,” Jones said. “But I think that that kind of veneer can actually hide some of the ways that these legacies show up in everyday life. Some of the racial (and) pretty persistent racial disparities we have.” 

Aguilar explained the importance of revisiting the creation and history of institutions. 

“I think, especially when we re-examine a lot of our leaders and a lot of the pioneers in our field we’ll see that they’re flawed individuals,” Aguilar said. “ So I think that we need to be honest about the individuals whose ideas we’re utilizing for our systems, or institutions.”

In the 60s and 70s, the Black Panther Party was pushing to put initiatives on the ballot in San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, and Berkeley that would create community control of the police. Although the original proposal to control policing through the division of Berkeley into three smaller jurisdictions (Berkeley Hills, West Berkeley, and university and downtown business district) failed, a later proposal passed, leading to the creation of the Police Review Commission in Berkeley. 

“Berkeley actually was one of the first cities in the country to have civilian review of police,” Prichett said. “And cities all across the country called up Berkeley and wanted to know how they did it, why they did it, if they could do it in their own cities and stuff. Berkeley was quite a leader,” she added.

In the past 50 years of civilian oversight of police in Berkeley, “there’s been a lot of victories, but also a lot of challenges and obstacles throughout those years,” Aguilar said. 

“It’s been a pretty slow process to actually get up and running,” Raguso said. Furthermore, the scope of the board, as outlined in the city charter, is very broad, according to Wilson, leading to many unanswered questions about the specific powers of the board. “There’s some challenges with the charter and a lack of clarity within the city about exactly what’s the authority and the level of interdependencies of the board,” Wilson said. 

Despite these challenges, the role of the Police Accountability Board and Office are what Leah Wilson, a PAB member, described as, “critically important.” Wilson said, “We provide a really important check and balance on the police and that this community knows that we exist.” She added, “It’s an important accountability measure to have an independent board, and it seems to me that it’s something that every jurisdiction of any meaningful size needs to have.”