Police Commission Marks 30 Years of Controversy
Matthew Artz, Berkeley Daily Planet, December 5, 2002
Today’s Berkeley Police Department bears little resemblance to the force that fired on People’s Park protesters in 1969 and prompted voters to approve one of the nation’s first citizen review commissions four years later.
Now the SWAT Team doesn’t shoot first and negotiate later in hostage situations, chokeholds are banned, and minorities are more numerous on the force, and less hassled on the street.
But for the Police Review Commission—which spearheaded those reforms and celebrated its 30th anniversary Thursday—little has changed. It’s still fighting for relevance and still steeped in controversy.
“It’s a biased venue that does a disservice to the community,” said Randolph Files, president of the Berkeley Police Association—which has considered the PRC to be a knee-jerk anti-cop panel since its inception.
Increasingly, though, the sharpest criticisms have come from advocates for the accused, who argue that the commission has lost its activist zeal and retreated from the community whose support it needs to remain relevant.
“[The PRC] isn’t loved by the bureaucracy, so if it’s not loved by the people, I don’t see them having a 40th anniversary,” said Andrea Pritchett of Copwatch, an independent organization that monitors alleged police misconduct.
Though not passed by voters until 1973, the commission is rooted in the free speech movement of the 1960s, when protesters often complained of police misconduct. The defining moment came during the People’s Park protests of 1969 when Berkeley police and Alameda County Sheriff Deputies fired on crowds and helicopters sprayed tear gas on the UC Berkeley campus.
As veterans of the movement began flexing their muscles in city government, police reform became a top priority in an era when no African American BPD officer had ever risen to sergeant.
“The police viewed us as the enemy, even though we paid their taxes,” said James Chanin, a Berkeley civil rights attorney who sat on the first commission. “It was a white male-dominated department that was hostile to the politics of Berkeley.”
The ballot effort forged an alliance that remade Berkeley politics—uniting the April Coalition, forerunner to today’s progressive faction, and the Black Panther Party, some of whose members recalled a time two decades earlier when the BPD kept close tabs on African Americans who crossed east of Martin Luther King Jr. Way (then Grove Street).
Their victory was met with immediate antagonism from the BPA, which filed a string of lawsuits aimed at abolishing the fledging commission.
Though the commission survived, one lawsuit dealt it a devastating blow. Originally intended to replace Internal Affairs—the police department’s internal investigation and disciplinary unit—a judge ruled that only a charter amendment, not a ballot initiative, could give the commission authority to discipline officers.
Reduced to a role as advisors to the city manager—who reviews the commission’s findings and controls its funds—the commission wields little institutional power.
“It’s only as strong as the commitment and energy of the commissioners,” said Osha Neuman, who served from 1984-1992. During his first year, an activist commission witnessed UC Berkeley police indiscriminately use chokeholds on student protesters decrying U.S. business ties with the apartheid regime in South Africa.
After taking testimony, the commission effectively lobbied Council to ban the chokehold for city police.
A decade earlier, the first commission used its influence to bring in a hostage negotiator for the department’s SWAT team and change its training methods.
Still, when it comes to actual complaints against officers, the PRC’s findings carry little weight. No one interviewed could recall a case when an officer was fired or disciplined as the result of a commission finding.
A 2002 California Court of Appeals ruling further eroded the commission’s disciplinary power by mandating that cities with citizen review commissions set up appeal bodies for officers seeking to strike sustained allegations from their record.
According to commissioners, since the process started last year, the three-person appeal board selected by then-City Manager Weldon Rucker has overturned nearly every commission finding against officers.
“I’m astounded by their decisions. It’s ridiculous,” said Commissioner David Ritchie.
Sgt. Files maintains that the appeals board vindicates BPA claims that the PRC—composed of nine council-appointed residents, instead of staffers like most cities—has always been home to those predisposed against the police.
“It’s a detriment to police officers trying to help people to get Monday morning quarterbacked by people who don’t know what’s going on in the real world,” said Files. And while he said he supports the concept of citizen review, Files said Berkeley’s model has damaged morale and made police more reluctant to take proactive measures, especially in circumstances where the suspect could accuse the officer of racial bias.
Barbara Attard, the commission’s secretary and lead investigator, countered that Berkeley’s system which requires the accused officer and the complainant to appear together before the board helps both sides to better understand each other.
Sometimes even when a police officer didn’t violate a rule, he realizes he could have handled a situation in a way that wouldn’t have caused resentment, she said.
Statistics show that commissioners side with the police in most cases. In 2002, commissioners sustained allegations in 21 of the 46 cases filed. Forty-six officers were accused in cases last year, 12 in multiple cases. Currently 28 officers have sustained findings on their records.
Last year’s 46 cases were the fewest since 1998, which commissioners attributed to fewer mass demonstrations and improved relations between police and Critical Mass bicycle protesters, but also to a lack of funding to promote the commission’s work.
In 2002, BPD’s Internal Affairs Board received nearly 120 complaints, including the 46 that it automatically received from the commission. That means many Berkeley residents with complaints about the police either didn’t know about the commission or didn’t bother to bring it to their attention.
“If I had a serious complaint, I wouldn’t go to the PRC,” Prichett said. “Often you’re left to deal with the bureaucracy and present your case by your lonesome, and if you lose, it hurts your court case.”
She said that, unlike previous boards, current commissioners aren’t hitting the streets to promote their activities or monitor police conduct.
Commissioners past and present disagree, saying the PRC has provided an invaluable outlet for police-community dialog that has improved policing in the city and helped Berkeley steer clear of the expensive misconduct suits that have plagued Oakland and San Francisco.
“It’s been really important for people in the community to have a place they can go and have grievances heard and confront the police officer,” Neuman said. “Police say we’re not experts, but we are experts in that we know what it’s liked to be policed. The process is never over; it’s the only way to know what’s happening in the community.”