Speakers at Public Hearing Call for Open Police Complaint Process

By Judith Scherr
Friday October 27, 2006

Energized with recorded rhythms such as Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” some 60 protesters rallied outside the Berkeley Public Safety building then marched through the streets and demanded the reopening of police complaint hearings.  

The demonstration ended at the Police Review Commission [PRC] meeting, where ralliers crowded into a meeting room at the North Berkeley Senior Center for a public hearing on the suspension of complaint hearings. 

The rally was organized by Copwatch, the organization that also had collected more than 50 signatures to compel the PRC to hold the public hearing. 

“The PRC has been a model for civilian complaints for 33 years,” said Copwatch leader Andrea Pritchett, speaking at the rally. 

“We believe there are good cops in there,” she said, adding there are also “dirty cops” such as Sgt. Cary Kent, who was convicted on felony drug theft charges earlier this year because he took drug evidence from a locked evidence vault, and other officers on administrative leave pending formal charges. 

“We’ve got to restart a movement for community control of police,” Prichett said. 

Calling for reopening the hearings to the public, mayoral candidate Zachary Running Wolf asked why other candidates were absent. “Where’s our mayor? Where’s [mayoral candidate] Zelda Bronstein?” he asked. 

PRC hearings on complaints against police were suspended in mid-September, after the State Supreme Court ruled in Copley Press vs. San Diego County that disciplinary actions against police officers must be kept confidential. This ruling coincided with a four-year-old Berkeley Police Association lawsuit against the city, similarly arguing that the public should not have access to disciplinary procedures and records.  

Before the PRC hearing, City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque told the audience that the city’s position was that the Copley decision should not apply to Berkeley because the PRC does not actually discipline officers, as the Civil Service Board did in the Copley case. She said the BPA suit is invalid for similar reasons. 

“The city’s right as a charter city to create a public accountability procedure to review the actions of its police officers that are entirely separate from its disciplinary and personnel procedures is derived directly from the California Constitution,” Albuquerque said in a written memo. 

“Hearings are on a temporary hold—we’re not shutting them down,” she said. “We’re fighting this case to the hilt.” 

Underscoring the need for open hearings on complaints against police, Copwatch began the public hearing with a video in which police officers refused to show their badge numbers and moved Copwatch members filming arrests away from the scene.  

Former PRC Commissioner Mark Schlosberg, police policy director for the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, was among the speakers urging the commission to begin to explore ways of continuing the hearings immediately, and not to wait for a Nov. 14 hearing on the BPA lawsuit. 

“I think we should plan for various outcomes,” he said. 

“These are strange times, where everyone loses privacy except the police,” said Dean Tuckerman, telling the commission, “Don’t give up and let the police state run you over.” 

Because Berkeley’s PRC has been a model for other cities, people from outside Berkeley also attended the hearings. “It is very important that the hearings continue even if they must be closed  

to the public at this time,” said Chris Morray-Jones from the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. 

PRC Chair Sharon Kidd said comments at the public hearing would not be discussed by the commission until after the Nov. 14 court hearing on the BPA lawsuit. 

In other Police Review Commission matters, Kidd said the commission has delayed until further notice review of the case of the Berkeley police officer convicted earlier this year of stealing drugs from a locked evidence vault and review of the pending cases of two other officers on administrative leave who may be charged with criminal acts.