Lights Out for Citizen Review

January 20, 2011

Five years ago I attended a police review hearing at night in the worst part of Berkeley, in a fluorescent lit room where the commissioners were trading jokes with the police like old friends at a barbeque. The commissioner presiding over the hearing was a former prosecutor who was on a first-name basis with the police. The subject officer had a lawyer representing him, and the room was full of uniformed officers and one captain. The complainant was alone.

When we got to the moment where the subject officers had ripped the sweater the complainant was wearing completely off her body in front of her neighbors, one of the commissioners, a woman, leaned in to ask the police if it wasn’t routine to undress people who were being arrested. The lawyer answered in a level tone that, no, it was not routine, but gave her a small smile, appreciating the slow, underhand lob over the plate.

The subject officers’ interviews were not scheduled at all by the staff of the Police Review Commission until long past a technical deadline, which meant even the remote possibility of disciplinary action was gone. There is no question that the staff is busy, obligated to make time for a closed-door, secret system of appeal for those few officers who receive a sustained complaint against them. No one tells the complainant if a case is overturned.

The staff had not bothered to interview one of the officers, since the city had “declined to hire” him after the incident, arguing that he was no longer under their jurisdiction, even though he was an employee on the day in question.

Berkeley’s system of police review was once touted as one of the county’s strongest because it had subpoena power, a power it has never used. If it had used its subpoena power, the argument from the city attorney’s office goes, it would have lost the power entirely to a legal challenge.

The same year as that hearing, a Berkeley sergeant stole (and was convicted of stealing) $310,000 in cash and narcotics evidence with a street value of $1.5 million from the evidence and property room. According to a recent report by Berkeley’s city auditor, the department has taken only minimal steps to improve the evidence room situation.

Misconduct by police did not stop when state-wide privacy laws specific to police officers were passed in alleged conflict with the Brown Act’s open meeting provisions. They just slid it under the rug, leaving communities at risk not just of misconduct from individual officers, but of the collective cost of community after community with no recourse to address misconduct and mistrust.

Police officers and their state lobbyists need to recognize this collective cost. Police review in a private setting is just a biased show for staff who happen to be present, staff sometimes appointed to confound the very concept of police accountability. In Berkeley, the Police Review Commission staff crow about the few complaints received (so few that any statistics derived from them skew wildly from year to year) as though it meant that no misconduct existed.

Without public hearings, the snide remarks, the rolled eyes, the obvious exasperation with the idea of respect for the public’s rights will go underground, fitting right in with the national climate regarding human rights. If the public is blindfolded, citizen review no longer exists.

It’s time for communities with a commitment to eliminating police misconduct to commit to a public review process, and only hire officers whose commitment to public services acknowledges the necessity of a public process to establish community trust. The trust established between a community and its police department will be much more valuable than guns, pepper spray, and tasers in keeping the public safe.