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Critics Question Closed-Door Discussion of Police Disciplinary Hearings

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday October 03, 2006

Today (Tuesday) the City Council and Police Review Commission are scheduled to discuss whether the city can hold public inquiries to investigate complaints against Berkeley Police Department officers as they have in the past. 

But the public won’t be privy to the discussion, which is to be held behind closed doors. 

The issue of public inquiry into police conduct is not officially on the closed-door meeting agenda, but is related and likely to surface in discussion, according to PRC Officer Victoria Urbi, who staffs the commission. 

The item posted for the closed-door session is a meeting which will include the PRC, the City Council and their attorneys, concerning a lawsuit filed in 2002 by the Berkeley Police Officers Association. The complaint says that, given that disciplinary actions are private personnel matters, mandatory appearance of Berkeley police officers at public hearings “violate(s) the statutory and contractual rights of the officers who are subject to these inquiries.” 

Urbi explained that the closed-door discussion will center around the relationship between the Berkeley officers’ lawsuit and an Aug. 31 California Supreme Court decision, Copley Press vs. San Diego County, which broadens the scope of privacy laws that protect police from the disclosure of disciplinary records maintained by police departments. 

They will talk about “if we need to close our hearings,” Urbi said. 

In response to the Copley decision, the city attorney, in mid-September, canceled the PRC’s inquiry boards through the end of October. The inquiry boards, made up of three PRC commissioners, investigate complaints against police officers and either sustain or dismiss the complaint. The police chief can take the PRC ruling into consideration when disciplining an officer, but is not obliged to do so. 

The question of suspending the inquiry boards has not been discussed in public session. 

Shutting out the public on this issue concerns PRC Commissioner Sherry Smith, who said the city ought to divide the question, addressing the BPOA lawsuit in closed session and talking about the Copley ruling and the future of the police review hearings in open session. 

That is also the position of PRC Commissioner Bill White, who told the Planet: “Discussion of the Copley decision should not be handled in closed session. If we’re going to discuss the Copley decision, it’s a public discussion.”  

White said Police Review Commission hearings should never have been suspended in response to the Supreme Court decision. “I don’t feel that the Copley case and the Berkeley PRC process are related,” White said.  

The difference is that the PRC does not discipline officers, he said. The Supreme Court decision turns around San Diego’s Civil Service Commission, which, unlike the PRC, is responsible for disciplining officers. 

Urbi said a public discussion of the hearing process should be held separately in the future. 

In a phone interview, City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque argued that discussion in closed session is entirely appropriate under the state’s open meeting laws. In light of the BPA lawsuit and the Copley decision, the council and PRC will discuss “if the current (PRC) procedures are legally defensible or not.”  

If the council and PRC decide the procedures are legally defensible, then the boards of inquiry will resume as in the past. Consideration of future changes will take place at a future date in open session, Albuquerque said, contending that holding Tuesday’s meeting in open session would give the BPOA an unfair advantage by learning the city’s strategy with respect to its lawsuit. 

The closed-session meeting, preceded by public comment, is at 5 p.m., at the city administrative building, 2180 Milvia St. 6th floor.