Hostility and Ineffectiveness: By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday September 07, 2004

Last Friday night after work I went down to Orchard Supply Hardware to buy a couple of small items. (Only chain stores are open on Friday nights in Berkeley.) As I was driving back up Ashby Avenue on my way home, I saw a white van marked “Crime Scene Unit” parked on the southeast corner of Ashby and California. There were three or four Berkeley police cars parked on the north side of Ashby, and I saw several police officers. Since that’s a neighborhood which has had several shootings in the last year, I wondered what might be going on.  

I turned left at the next corner and went around the block to come south on California Street, where I saw three or more additional police cars parked at the corner and more officers. I pulled up alongside one of the officers who were standing in the street and asked him what was going on. “Why do you want to know?” he asked. I told him that I’m with the Daily Planet, and that I thought that something newsworthy might have happened. “Why should you think that?” he said. Because of the number of police present, I said.  

“I don’t have to tell you anything,” he said. “Rubbernecking, holding up traffic like this, it’s a serious breach of decorum.” I looked in my rearview mirror back along California Street—no one behind me, no one held up.  

Perhaps he hadn’t heard me say that I was with the press? I tried again. I stuck my hand out the window, shook his hand (much to his discomfort), told him my name and my job, and asked him what his name and badge number were. “Officer Jim __________, Badge 114.” he muttered. I couldn’t hear his last name, something ending in “I,” but I was afraid to annoy him by asking again. I fumbled around in my purse for a card, but he didn’t want it, wasn’t interested. He asked what right I had to ask what was going on. I hazarded an answer, knowing it would not make him happy: “The people’s right to know?” Hands on hips, he frowned again. 

By this time a younger officer had come up behind him and was trying to get his attention, saying he needed to talk to him about something. It was pretty obvious that the junior guy, who had arrived on a bicycle, was nervous about Officer Jim’s belligerent behavior, but O.J. refused to be distracted.  

“What are you doing here?” he said. I told him that I worked nearby, and lived on Ashby, and that I was on my way home. “This is my neighborhood, and I haven’t seen you at any neighborhood meetings,” he said in a challenging tone of voice. Finally, grudgingly, with an eye on the junior guy listening, Officer Jim said, “What if I told you there was a traffic accident?” 

By this time there was another car waiting behind me, and I figured that was the best I was going to do, so I left. When I got home, I called the police non-emergency number, and was told that there had indeed been an accident on that corner.  

Why did Officer Jim feel such a strong need to be gratuitously rude to a citizen who stopped to ask a question? O.J. was hostile to me even before he found out that I am connected with the press, which would not have been an excuse for rudeness anyway. 

I’m not exactly threatening looking: a middle-aged somewhat frazzled-looking plump woman driving a granny van.  

He couldn’t have been too busy, given that there were a minimum of six cars with attendant personnel, plus the crime scene unit, available to take care of the traffic accident, if that’s what it was. By the time I got there, I didn’t see any dented cars, obvious victims or ambulances, though they may have been there earlier. The officers I saw were just standing around. 

So why couldn’t he just politely answer my polite question? “What’s happening?” “There’s been a traffic accident.” Thanks and goodbye. Simple, but obviously too challenging for Berkeley’s finest.  

I remembered a letter the Planet received a while back from a citizen who was unwilling to have it printed because of fear of reprisals. He said: 

“Public safety workers are rapidly becoming the new aristocracy of labor. Police and fire salaries and benefit costs are soaring and are taking an increasing chunk of General Fund money. This is leading to proposals for parcel taxes to fund things that are getting squeezed out by the growth in public safety and other public employee costs. But the City Council should not expect the voters to be sympathetic to calls for new parcel taxes until they deal with the underlying cause of the city’s budget problem which is excessive municipal employee wage and benefit increases.” 

He backed up his analysis with credible facts and figures, too many to include here. One comparision: “ ….if no changes are made in the police contract, the starting salary for a rookie police officer will be almost double the starting salary of a teacher who just got a credential. Right now, the starting salary of the lowest paid cop is at least 168 percent of that of the lowest paid teacher with a credential. Teachers with emergency credentials are paid even less.” I thought of a recent story: the police chief will soon be retiring at 55 with a lifetime pension of about $150,000 a year.  

We get frequent complaints from readers about how hard it is to get police attention for drug dealing, prostitution and other crime problems, particularly in south and west Berkeley. But it’s not as if we’re tying the hands of the law—our paper and others have reported that most if not all Police Review Commission decisions about inappropriate police behavior are now overturned by the police department’s internal affairs office. Bottom line, the popular perception is that Berkeley police manage to combine ineffectiveness with hostile and belligerent behavior toward innocent citizens, and that they’re grossly overpaid.  

In the City Council election campaign now underway, this is a situation the candidates should be addressing. Comment from incumbent councilmembers, from the city manager’s office and even from the mayor would also be welcome. Voters are right now making up their minds about the parcel tax, and they’d like to know what’s going to be done about the police.