Calif. city adopts police reforms, votes to take cops off some traffic stops

By Sarah Ravani

San Francisco Chronicle

BERKELEY, Calif. — The Berkeley City Council adopted sweeping reforms to the city’s Police Department on Tuesday that will require written consent for police searches, the firing of racist officers and elimination of police stops for low-level offenses — such as failing to wear a seat belt or driving with expired license plate tags.

The council’s unanimous vote directs the city manager to develop a plan for implementing the changes, and Mayor Jesse Arreguin said he hopes some will be seen this year. The action comes amid calls from the public to reform police departments across the country to end abuses of people of color — a demand driven by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd last Memorial Day.

“It’s important to acknowledge that last year there was a lot of conversations about reimagining public safety,” Arreguin told The Chronicle. “Millions of people took to the streets to demand change. We have not seen the kind of big transformative change that people called for. It’s significant that we are still moving this forward.”

In addition to the changes adopted Tuesday, Berkeley has also created a task force to cut the police department’s budget in half to $36 million by this summer. The task force met for the first time last week.

The council’s vote Tuesday drew criticism from the Berkeley Police Association, which said the council did not consult the association or beat officers.

“At stake is the safety of Berkeley citizens and its police officers as the proposed reforms will turn officers into filing clerks, gutting their much-needed time on the streets within our community,” said Sgt. Darren Kacelek, president of the Berkeley Police Association.

[READ: State your case: Do we need traffic cops?]

The changes were recommended by a working group started by the mayor that included Councilwoman Kate Harrison, Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood, Oakland police Capt. Chris Bolton, and Jim Chanin, a civil rights attorney. The group worked with members of the NAACP, ACLU, the city’s police review commission and other organizations.

Greenwood spoke during the council meeting and said the department will develop and implement a strategy to transition officers away from stopping people for low-level offenses. He cautioned the policy will take time, but will provide regular updates to the council.

Tuesday’s vote comes after a report by the Center on Policing Equity found that Black motorists are 6.5 times more likely to be stopped by Berkeley police than white motorists, and 4.5 times more likely to be stopped while on foot. By comparison, a 2016 report found that Oakland officers were four times more likely to search Black men than white men during a traffic or pedestrian stop.

By diverting police away from low-level offenses, officers can focus on more serious offenses that include speeding or driving under the influence, Arreguin said.

“There are very clear disparities in terms of who is stopped and who is interacting with police in Berkeley,” Arreguin said. “This erodes community trust. It impacts public safety.”

The city is also transitioning traffic enforcement to unarmed civil servants. The new Berkeley Department of Transportation will staff the BerkDOT program. There is no timeline yet for when BerkDOT will launch.

Greenwood also said the department has already made some strides, including prohibiting stops based solely on race and ethnicity and avoiding the hiring of racist officers.

“We work within policies and the law to make sure we don’t have racist officers,” Greenwood said.

His comments drew ire from speakers during public comment. Speakers spoke for nearly an hour and overwhelmingly supported the changes. During public comment, Chanin said it’s important for the chief to acknowledge that there is a problem based on the police stop data.

“It seems to me that acknowledging a problem, which police chiefs have done all across the country, is the first stage to solving it,” he said. “If you don’t acknowledge it, you’re going to have a lot of trouble solving it.”

(c)2021 the San Francisco Chronicle

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