The shooting death of Berkeley Police officer Ron Tsukamoto in August 1970 occurred during a period of tense confrontation between left-leaning community and political organizations and law enforcement agencies in Berkeley and the Bay Area, as chronicled in the pages of the Berkeley Daily Gazette.
A little more than a week before the Tsukamoto shooting, the Berkeley City Council publicly discussed a council committee report on citizen complaints against local police officers, including the alleged July 4 police beating of a Berkeley minister and alleged police brutality against Berkeley Free Clinic medical personnel in May of that year.
In that same week, the Berkeley-Albany Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report titled “Police Personnel Complaints and Redress Remedies,” pointing out what the ACLU called “the ineffectiveness and unresponsiveness of the city manager’s office, the City Council and the police department in dealing with citizen complaints” and calling Berkeley “a battleground with not a single trustworthy or reliable umpire present.”
The day before the City Council meeting on the police complaint report, a group of Berkeley citizens and representatives of national organizations met at Franklin School to discuss a petition drive to put a community control of the police department initiative on the Berkeley ballot.
Included as speakers were Tom Hayden of the Students for a Democratic Society, a representative of the Black Panther Party, and Frank Daar, a Berkeley Planning Commissioner.
According to the Daily Gazette, the proposed initiative would have split Berkeley into white, black, and campus communities, each controlled by its own separate neighborhood police departments. The Alameda County clerk’s office certified that almost 8,000 Berkeley voters—more than 15 percent of the active city electorate—had signed the petition.
Less than a week after the Tsukamoto shooting, Berkeley City Council voted 5-2 to place the initiative on the April ballot. One of the councilmembers in favor of placing the initiative on the ballot even earlier was Ron Dellums, later elected to the U.S. Congress. During a presentation to the council, Tom Hayden—who was later elected to the California State Senate—said that “the police are on a collision course with a great many people, perhaps the majority, in this community.”
The passage of the ballot initiative in 1972 which eventually established Berkeley’s Police Review Commission grew out of the struggles and discussions over the proposed community control initiative.
In that same month, 12 Alameda County deputy sheriffs went on trial for allegations of brutality in the 1969 battles at People’s Park that led to the calling out of the California National Guard into the city.
Two weeks before the Tsukamoto shooting, Black Panther leader Huey Newton was released on bail after the California Court of Appeal overturned his conviction in the 1967 shooting death of an Oakland police officer.
Newton later said in a KPFA interview that Tsukamato’s shooting was “a revolutionary act.”
Two days after Newton’s release from jail and 10 days before the Tsukamoto shooting, a California Superior Court judge was kidnapped from his San Rafael courtroom and later killed in an abortive attempt to win the freedom of Soledad prison inmate George Jackson. Jackson’s younger brother, Jonathan, and two San Quentin inmates were also killed in the attempt, which drew international headlines..