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Police Review Hearings Nixed In Response to Court Decision

By Judith Scherr
Friday September 22, 2006

Since 1973, the Berkeley community has been able to air complaints in public against its police officers and compel them to respond. But a recent California Supreme Court decision may have knocked the teeth out of the ordinance that created Berkeley’s Police Review Commission. 

Earlier this week, City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque directed the Police Review Commission to cancel all complaint hearings through the end of October. The commission was scheduled to meet in closed session yesterday (Thursday) evening to discuss ramifications of the court decision. Oakland and San Francisco have similarly canceled their citizen’s review board hearings on police complaints. (Albuquerque was out of town and unavailable to comment. Other city attorneys did not return Daily Planet calls for comment.) 

The decision, Copley Press v. San Diego County, says that a state law that keeps disciplinary records of law enforcement officers confidential also applies to proceedings before local boards. 

Oakland City Attorney John Russo called the ruling “breath-takingly broad,” and said that perhaps the only way public police review hearings can resume is through new legislation. 

Russo said the key will be: “Can we show that the review board doesn’t meet the definition of an employing agency?” He says his staff is continuing to review that question. 

The legal case addressed by the court has to do with a newspaper’s request for records kept by an agency that employed a law enforcement officer; this agency both heard the officers’ appeals and meted out discipline.  

Berkeley attorney Osha Neumann, a PRC commissioner for many years, argues that Berkeley’s PRC, unlike the San Diego commission in the case reviewed by the court, is independent of the employer. It investigates and rules on complaints, but does not have disciplinary rights, as an employing agency would. 

Neumann, who connects the court decision to a “right-wing push by police unions challenging police review,” said he urges the PRC to continue its hearings, even if they must be temporarily closed to the public. “My concern is that the PRC exercise courage and advocate for continuing what the voters voted for – oversight of the police.” 

PRC Chair Sharon Kidd said open public police review hearings are critical. “It is the right of the community to come and observe what is going on [in the hearings],” she said. 

The Berkeley Police Officers Association did not return a call for comment before deadline.