I was stunned to learn at the same time as the public of allegations that an off-duty Berkeley Police Officer used violence and racism to harm and intimidate a community member in Antioch earlier this year. City Management appears to have been informed about the alleged incident as early as February, 2023. Now an audio recording has resurfaced allegedly involving the same officer and Black community members, and appears to exhibit offensive and potentially racist speech. These incidents come in the wake of the emergence of racist text messages and allegations of arrest quotas within the BPD Bike Team.
State and local personnel rules regarding police officers limit the City’s ability to discuss and disclose discipline and other records. I don’t and shouldn’t know what discipline is taken against individual officers. I don’t know whether the department is aware of past allegations against officers. But I do know that the systems in place are inadequate to combat direct acts of aggression toward residents using power and racism as a cudgel.
The Department has stated policies clarifying that it doesn’t condone racism or abuse of power. For example, Policy 1029 stipulates those employees of the BPD whose speech or expression “tends to compromise or damage the mission, function, or reputation…of the Berkeley Police Department” will be held accountable. I led the council in passing other critical reforms such as the BPD Use of Force Policy overhaul. After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the Council was galvanized to tackle this head on by endorsing and implementing the Mayor’s Fair and Impartial Policing (FIP) Working Group recommendations. The Department has since implemented a number of new policies in response to the FIP, including changing its approach to vehicle and pedestrian stops.
However, the FIP report, and past and recent incidents in Berkeley and across the nation highlight the necessity of tracking red flags in the force that could lead to infringement of constitutional rights and liability. This is a basic human resources and management function that has long been in place in workplaces.
Our current Department’s current overall monitoring system, a random audit of officers, is not the same as a comprehensive Early Warning System, which the Mayor’s Fair and Impartial (FIP) Working Group recommended in 2021, and which I got funded in this year’s budget update. The latter looks for patterns of behavior and holds officers accountable. Moreover, the FIP report and subsequent Council action implementing the report, directed BPD to provide “regular analysis” of these data, not just placement of the raw data on the Transparency Hub. We must move beyond 2017, where we simply post and analyze data for its own sake; we must take action where warranted.
Pending the deployment of a new system, audits should be focused on officers who are outliers, with a particular focus on racial disparities in stops, arrests, and searches or a history of past complaints of biased treatment or use of force.
These incidents stain the department and the vast majority of fine officers that serve our City. Not only is that demoralizing; it is dangerous. A recent study by the journal Nature of Human Behavior of dozens of departments finds misconduct spreads among police officers. The new study found that, as officers with records of misconduct transitioned between assignments, they statistically increased the likelihood that those around them would be accused of bad behavior.
This is not, as the authors’ said, a police problem: it is a human problem. One author said: “The spread [of misconduct] can be stopped if it’s tracked, and if something’s done about it.” Another said: “Peer effects work both ways…[a] strong, ethical social environment is a very powerful positive tool.”
This is not only the right but the fiscally responsible thing to do; the 25 largest departments in the U.S. paid out $3 billion in settlements in cases involving police misconduct.
These approaches do not distract from our priority to fight crime. In fact, they will help the Department focus on crime and will provide additional tools to measure performance and enhance training. We can and must give our department the resources to fight crime while insisting they do so constitutionally.
Clearly, it is not a moment too soon.