Commission Looks at Closed-Door Police Complaint Process

By Judith Scherr
Friday April 27, 2007

A sparsely attended public hearing to consider how to conduct closed-door complaint hearings was held Wednesday evening by the Police Review Commission. 

Following the California Supreme Court case Copley Press v. San Diego, Berkeley suspended its public police complaint boards of inquiry during which, traditionally, the complainant and the subject police officer answer questions from a three-person panel to determine whether or not the board will sustain a complaint. 

The Supreme Court decision and a recent decision in favor of the Berkeley Police Association, in BPA v. City of Berkeley, determined that complaint procedures may not be conducted in public because that violates the police officers’ right to privacy in personnel matters. 

Under discussion at the Wednesday public hearing were regulations drafted by the city attorney for eventual closed-door hearings on complaints.  

The commission took no action, but voted to have the city attorney take comments into consideration and come back to the commission with a new draft.  

Commissioners were frustrated by the fact that they have held no boards of inquiry since August. There are 51 complaints pending. “If we keep waiting, we have no way to proceed. We have to adopt something to keep the process toddling along,” said Commissioner Sherry Smith. 

At the heart of the new regulations is a requirement that the complainant, the subject officer, staff and the hearing board sign statements saying they will keep the “substance of the proceedings before the board or evidence submitted to it [confidential and will not] reveal the identity of the officer(s) or any witnesses.” 

Commissioner Michael Sherman commented on the section that read “Commission members shall not make any public comment on any complaints.” Sherman said, “This seems to be very restrictive.” 

“You can’t comment on an individual complaint,” responded City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque. “All records must be confidential—not just the name [of the subject officer],” Albuquerque said. 

Commissioner Jack Radisch commented that the rule doesn’t make sense. He pointed to a fictional example where the complainant would have already gone to the press and named the officer.  

“The complaint has been published in the press, then the complainant goes to the PRC and makes a formal complaint,” Radisch said. “A hearing is conducted. A reporter approaches me [after the closed hearing] and I cannot say what has happened,” he said. 

The city attorney affirmed that was correct, to which Commissioner Michael Sherman replied, “If I had any doubts that we should appeal this all the way, my doubts have been removed.” However, the complainant can describe publicly the incident as he sees it “that is not derived from the hearing,” Albuquerque said. 

The commission also addressed additional regulations governing the closed hearing process drafted by PRC Officer Victoria Urbi, who staffs the commission. The PRC officer “will act as the hearing officer and rule on objections and may make objections,” Urbi wrote. 

PRC members were unanimous in saying that they did not want staff serving in that capacity. “Staff should not be part of the deliberating process,” said Commissioner Bill White. Urbi said she would remove that language. 

In other matters, Urbi lobbied the commissioners to go to the councilmembers and ask for additional PRC staff to investigate complaints. “We’re behind in some very big projects,” she said. 

The commission will look at the revised regulations May 9, 7 p.m., at the South Berkeley Sr. Center, 2939 Ellis St. The PRC subcommittee looking at issues related to the police officer who stole drug evidence will meet May 3, 5:30 p.m., at the North Berkeley Senior Center, Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Hearst Avenue, to question Police Chief Doug Hambleton.