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Scathing letter publicly faults top cops

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday September 13, 2000

In a move that has catapulted the normally low-key Berkeley Police Association into the public arena, a strongly-worded letter sent by the association’s attorneys to Police Chief Dash Butler was also sent to the city manager and to the City Council, rendering the caustic document public. 

The Sept. 6 letter, delivered anonymously to the Daily Planet, honed in on the department’s modifying a procedure for handling suspects without consultation with the BPA.  

But that is just the tip of the iceberg, BPA attorney Michael Rains wrote. “At best, this issue is the manifestation of a managerial philosophy rooted in inflexibility and autocracy, rather than one in which the voice of our employees is sincerely sought out and heard before final decisions relating to terms and conditions of employment become etched in policy memoranda.” 

Not so, said Butler in a phone  

interview Tuesday.  

“I have a meeting with BPA every Wednesday afternoon. We talk about issues.” 

Rains said, however, that officers tell him that the chief meets but does not listen. 

Butler, a member of the Berkeley force for 30 years and chief for 10, says there are numerous examples of department policy being modified as a result of consultation with the union. One is the issue of pepper spray. 

The City Council had wanted officers’ spray cans tabbed, so that it would be known when they were used. However, the tabs interfered with effective use. The chief said union brought the issue to him and he brought it to the council and got the policy modified. 

The specific complaint addressed in the letter deals with an order by Captain Will Pittman who advised officers of a change in policy. 

“It appears over the years, we have developed a practice of asking,directing persons removed from a vehicle and/or those detained on city streets, to sit down on the curb of the pavement with their feet placed in the street,” said the directive. “The above-described practice is not a departmentally-approved technique...Placing people on the ground unnecessarily is demeaning and is a practice not supported by the department. Therefore, effective immediately, a report will be written whenever a citizen is placed on the ground (lying or sitting)....” 

Alison Berry Wilkinson, attorney for the BPA, responded to Pittman’s order in a July 31 letter: This method is “taught in all (police) academies and is utilized in your departmental training.” 

Although some might feel the tactic is “demeaning,” when it is used correctly, it “reduces the number of officers required to control a situation and eliminates the need to use more intrusive (and potentially more demeaning) techniques.” It is less intrusive than handcuffing suspects or putting them in the back seat of a patrol car, stated the July 31 letter to Butler. 

Further, the association lawyers argue that the instruction is ambiguous: how can officers be directed not to sit people on the sidewalk, then be told that when they do this, they’re supposed to write a report? 

“Officers would conclude that, if it is not approved or supported, use of the technique could hold the officer subject to discipline,” Officer Douglas Emberton wrote in a July 22 e-mail to Pittman. 

Butler, however, said he stands firmly behind the directive. “If they tell you to sit cross-legged on the ground, how are you going to feel if you haven’t tried to run or tried to fight?” he asked. 

As for the question of ambiguity, Butler argued that the order did not imply that officers could never use the procedure.  

Writing a report when they do make people sit on the sidewalk it would make them reflect on their action. “It’s a catalyst for introspection,” the chief said. 

Although the technique of having suspects sit on the curb was cited with a particular emphasis, the BPA listed other complaints against the department that include alleged misrepresentation to the BPA around promotional opportunities and derogatory statements including the use of profanity concerning the BPA made by Pittman. 

While the BPA alleges that a second promotional list was established that added persons not on an earlier unused list, the chief said the promotions had been meted out strictly according to department rules and that all the persons had scored as they should on exams. 

The chief said if in fact, the alleged foul language had been used by Pittman, the officers should have brought it to his attention earlier. He said he would look into the allegations, and that he and other ranking officers would be attending classes on improved communications. 

As far as what needs to be done in response to the letter, Butler said he is in touch with the BPA attorneys and has asked them to determine exactly what the BPA wants.  

“They have a very smart chief,” Rains said. “The officers just want the chief to (allow them to) give their input.” 

Acting City Manager Weldon Rucker said he plans to step in and try to bring the two sides together. “I would like to see a better dialog between the administration and the association,” he said. “Unfortunately, (the union) has elected to go to this (public) level so soon.” 

Rucker said he believes the problem will be resolved. “We’ll get to the root cause. They are all good people who want a healthy work environment.”