Court Rejects Berkeley Appeal, Police Complaint Hearings Must Still Be Closed

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday October 08, 2008 - 04:56:00 PM

A California Appeals Court has ruled that the City of Berkeley’s Police Review Commission must continue to exclude the public from complaint hearings against Berkeley Police officers, and must continue to bar public access to peace officer personnel records or other records relating to Police Review Commission investigations or findings in such complaints. 

The Appeals Court ruling will have no effect on current PRC procedures, which follow a 2006 California Supreme Court ruling and a related Superior Court judge decision blocking public access to such police complaint records and hearings. 

But at least one Berkeley city official said he feels that the ruling will have a long-term damaging effect on preventing possible police abuse of citizens. 

“It seems strange that if a public official [such as a police officer] is really abusing the public, the public doesn’t have the right to know this,” City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said by telephone, following announcement of the ruling. “I don’t think secrecy is a good tool for helping to promote accountability. I think it will discourage people from using the [PRC police complaint] process.” 

Berkeley’s PRC, which was established in 1973, held open police complaint hearings and provided public access to its findings and other complaint records until August 2006, when the California Supreme Court ruled in its landmark Copley Press v. San Diego ruling that such hearings should be closed and such records withheld from the public. 

Meanwhile, the Berkeley Police Association union had filed a complaint in California Superior Court in 2002, seeking to close BPA hearings and records to the public. That case languished in Superior Court until the Supreme Court’s Copley ruling, following which the Superior Court judge immediately ruled in BPA’s favor. 

In May of last year, Berkeley City Council voted to appeal the Superior Court ruling, setting up this week’s Appeal Court decision. 

Berkeley at first suspended all PRC police complaint hearings following the Copley and Superior Court BPA rulings in 2006, but restarted them on a closed-door basis last year. Since then, the commission has had trouble reducing the hearing backlog caused by the long suspension. 

In late January of this year, PRC minutes show a backlog of 81 open complaints, with only three police hearings scheduled and two postponed. In late March, the commission reported the same 81 open-case backlog, with two cases “ready to go to hearing.” In late May there were still 80 open cases, with four hearings scheduled in May and June. In late June, the commission reported 75 open complaints and one hearing scheduled. On July 23, the last PRC meeting for which online minutes are available, the commission reported 75 complaints pending and said that hearings had been suspended while staff determined how many complaints might have to be dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out. 

The PRC meets every second and fourth Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the South Berkeley Senior Center. 

Berkeley Public Information Officer Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said that the Berkeley City Attorney’s office is still reviewing the Appeals Court ruling, which it received yesterday, and is “considering the options.” 

Clunies-Ross said that the Appeals Court decision was “obviously unfortunate,” adding that the city is “committed to open government.”  

She said that the City Attorney’s office will make any recommendations for future action to the City Council, which will make the ultimate decision on how the city will react. Clunies-Ross said that no date has been set for the city attorney’s recommendation to City Council. 

Representatives of the Police Review Commission and the Berkeley Police Association could not be reached in time for comment for this story.