Public Comment

Commentary: Berkeley Needs Copwatch to Track Police Conduct

By Jonathan Huang
Friday November 10, 2006

Recently, an attorney for the Berkeley Police Association, Harry Stern, disparaged Berkeley Copwatch for its service to the community. Those remarks were absolutely unwarranted, shameful, and insulting to the citizens of Berkeley.  

Though I honor the dedication and self-sacrifice of many police officers, I recognize that such authority and power can be perverted by a few. In effect, it is essential to keep them in check 

In August, however, a California Supreme Court decision, Copley vs. San Diego, has weakened the function of civilian oversight, and the BPA is using this decision as legal fodder for sterilizing the Berkeley Police Review Commission. Furthermore, this year was marked by an appalling Berkeley police scandal involving the tampering of over 200 drug evidence envelopes.  

It is in this context—our zeitgeist of repression—that I support the efforts of Copwatch and disagree with Stern’s outrageous comments: 

First, Stern deprecated Copwatch by stating that it “carries no weight in the matter” of the future of the PRC. Obviously, Copwatch is not a body of lawmakers. Its efforts, on the other hand, are aimed to pressure the city council, to promote public discourse, and to engage citizens in political action. Nonetheless, any organization that lacks legislative power is still part of the political equation, and hence relevant and important.  

Second, he implicitly assumes that because the Copley decision is the “law of land,” it must be right. His stance is, in essence, blind obedience to the government. There were many instances where “the law of the land” was inherently wrong. A prime example is the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, which approved the practice of racial segregation. Is one to say that until the Brown decision was reached in 1954 that segregation had been justified?  

Third, he belittles Copwatch by saying that they “whine and moan.” Even so, I’m surprised not every citizen in Berkeley is whining and moaning about the condition of police review. Civilian oversight is a thirty year tradition in Berkeley and has been a model for the nation. But now, PRC hearings are closed to the public, and the BPA are relentless in their efforts to neuter the commission. Most importantly, civilian oversight is a matter of ensuring that the government is by the people and for the people.  

Fourth, Stern is wrong to want the PRC to “follow current law and its own rules,” a quote from BPA President Henry Wellington. He puts an obligation on the PRC to do what is legal; rather, the PRC has an obligation on to do what is right. It is imperative to know that the law is never always right—considering that American law has supported segregation and torture, etc. We, as rational human beings, have an obligation to what is truly moral: a form transcending irreducibly unjust laws. Current law regarding civilian oversight affords the irrational and undemocratic, and the PRC ought to be able to do what is right: to have open hearings, greater powers of investigation, independent legal counsel, and the ability to publicize itself.  

Lastly and most disgracefully, Stern fundamentally charged Copwatch and other anti-authoritarianism groups of criminal activity. He said that “when I hear bold action, what I hear is that they want to break the law.” He does violence to reason in two respects. First, he assumes that Copwatch and other groups are criminal. This is blatantly false. Instead, Copwatch performs a principled function of monitoring the police and ensuring that police brutality and abuse are documented. In addition, the group champions effective community control over the government. Second, he assumes that laws are inherently right. In contrast, civil disobedience is warranted when a law makes one “so sick at heart” and is “so odious” (to quote Mario Savio) that one must force the combine of oppression to a halt.  

Hence, I find Harry Stern’s remarks about civilian review and Copwatch to be affronts to the principles of open government. Ultimately, the comments are insulting to the progressive ethos of Berkeley citizens who have a proud tradition of civilian oversight and police accountability.  


Jonathan Huang is a Berkeley resident.