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Protests spur calls for police reform

By Kurtis Alexander, Daily Planet Staff
Friday May 10, 2002

The take-home message at an impassioned citizens’ forum Wednesday night was that police brutality exists in Berkeley and there’s little that residents can do about it. 

A crowd of nearly 50 UC students and Berkeley residents shared repeated testimony of violent choke-holds and misuse of pepper spray by the UC Police Department, and said that oversight of the controversial conduct was negligible. 

“You and I have no say in how we’re policed,” said Andrea Prichett, a volunteer of the citizen oversight group Copwatch and featured speaker at Wednesday’s gathering. “You try to tell someone you don’t like the way you’re policed, it will fall upon deaf ears.” 

Critics at the jointly-sponsored forum, sponsored by Copwatch and the university’s Student Advocate Office, acknowledged that the campus police department has a board to review citizen concerns but charged that the board is only symbolic, with no intention or power to critique police action. 

UC police, though declining an invitation to attend the forum, disagreed with this assessment. 

“We’ve always thought our review process was adequate,” said Captain Bill Cooper prior to Wednesday’s forum. “I don’t know what has caused the need for this [gathering].” 

Cooper explained that his department has recently enacted a number of “self-analysis” policies. Among them are requiring police to testify before the review board, which was initially optional, and adding a community member to the board. The new policies are slated for review and improvement in 2003, Copper said. 

But critics claim the police board still falls short of its mission. 

“The police review board does not have an office. They do not have a phone number. They do not have a place where complaints can be filed,” explained student Alex Kipnis, a member of the university’s Student Advocate Office and featured speaker. 

“I wish there was a review board, something real, not this Mickey Mouse act,” stated audience member and Berkeley resident Michael Diehl. 

UC’s Cooper conceded that the current police review board is not in full working order, noting that the board has no chairperson to lead it and lacks certain resources. 

Cooper passed responsibility for staffing the board and bringing it up to speed, though, to the university’s chancellor’s office. 

Vice Chancellor Horace Mitchell, who oversees campus police and was invited to speak at Wednesday’s forum, was out of town this week and not available for comment. 

“I know they’re working on getting a chair [for the review board],” Cooper noted. 

But critics say the university has moved too slow and, this week, drafted a letter urging Mitchell to take more immediate action. The letter demands that the police review board be given greater muscle, that citizens observing police action not be unduly restricted, and that choke-holds and pepper spray be prohibited. 

The letter comes as community demonstrations are on the rise in Berkeley given the Middle East conflict, and with it, the possibility of questionable police intervention. 

The April 9 demonstration at the university’s Wheeler Hall resulted in 79 arrests and numerous concerns about excessive force, buckling the radar of activist groups. 

“While Berkeley’s municipal police department and even the California Highway Patrol have discontinued the use of chokeholds, the UC Police Department continues to employee this dubious practice,” the letter to Mitchell states. 

Likewise, UC police continue to use pepper spray though city police are not prevented from doing so, the letter adds. 

Wednesday’s forum ended with a pledge among the attendees to remain united and committed to their demands of the university. 

“I hope this is going to turn into something,” said Berkeley resident Aimee Durfee, who said she has lost her faith in police accountability. 

Berkeley Councilmember Kriss Worthington, also present at Wednesday’s forum, vowed his support for civilian rights and sympathized with the group’s demands on police. 

“It’s shocking that they have to ask for this,” he said.