Illustration by Kai Henthorn-Iwane
Berkeley City Council tabled a proposal to consider a charter amendment for increased police oversight on the city’s November ballot. At their meeting on March 27, council discussed the proposal, which would increase civilian supervision of Berkeley Police Department (BPD) by creating a new civilian oversight board. Currently, BPD policies and actions are reviewed by the Police Review Commission (PRC), a committee of Berkeley residents appointed by council.
The PRC was created in 1974. The commission’s website states: “The PRC hears individual complaints and makes policy recommendations to the City Manager and the Chief of Police.”
The proposed charter amendment, crafted by a group titled “Berkeley Community United for Police Oversight,” would replace the PRC with an independent commission employed by full time professional staff. This Berkeley Police Commission (BPC) would “oversee the Police Department in order to ensure that its policies, practices, and customs conform to constitutional policing and best practices and are responsive to all of Berkeley’s communities,” as stated in the proposal.
The current PRC is an appointed body of citizens which responds to complaints against the police and makes suggestions to the council. The BPC would have the power to oversee the police department without additional oversight by the city manager or council members. The BPC would also have the ability to hire their staff and an attorney independent of city officials. The commission would directly oversee the police department, including discipline cases, complaints, and police chief appointments. The BPC’s full time staff and control over its own budget is predicted to be more costly than the current PRC.
“This proposal is a positive one that seeks to overcome the divisions between police and the community, particularly communities of color,” said George Lippman, PRC vice chair. “We believe that constitution-based policing, non-discriminatory, fair, and impartial, is the most effective policing.”
District 2 Councilmember Cheryl Davila voted against tabling the amendment. She mentioned and spoke about instances of police brutality across the nation that have captured the public eye.
“The whole country is looking at reforming how police move forward,” she said. “We need a different approach on how they deal with the community and the public.” She said that the new commission would make the police department more accountable and transparent to the public.
During public comment, some community members disagreed with this sentiment. One commenter expressed concern that the establishment of the BPC could harm the line of responsibility from BPD to the PRC to the elected officials who appoint commissioners.
Another function of the BPC would be to review BPD’s budget. The proposed charter amendment would allow the commission to change BPD’s budget request to council if they abide by labor regulations and keep within five percent of current department staffing.
“BPD had around a 68 million dollar budget. It was 66 million previously, and it went up two million with the same number of full time employees,” Davila said. “The City Manager says that that extra two million is from overtime.” She proposed that the BPC could coordinate with local mental-health nonprofits to address mental health crises in place of police officers, reducing the cost of police overtime pay.
According to the PRC’s 2016 Annual Report, the commission heard an average of 22.8 complaints annually for the past five years. Between 2012 and 2016, the PRC supported eleven allegations of police misconduct, all but three of which were later overturned.
BPD has not been involved in a shooting since 2012. One public commenter said that she thought the department does not need the proposed oversight, and that a new civilian board would possibly antagonize officers.
Lippman said that there was still cause for oversight on problems such as racial disparities in the treatment of black and white citizens. “The Commission must work together with the police, elected leaders, and the public to find resolutions to such problems.”