There has been a lot of discussion recently about the land use ramifications of Bus Rapid Transit, but so far I have not heard much about the law enforcement side of the issue. If the Berkeley City Council approves BRT and donates the center two lanes of Telegraph to AC Transit, they will also be handing over the responsibility for law enforcement there. Anyone who drives down Telegraph or walks across it will fall under the jurisdiction of AC Transit’s police force. According to the BRT website, that police force will be the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department.
The Sheriff’s Department has operated in Berkeley in the past. On May 15, 1969, one of their deputies shot 25-year-old James Rector in the back in a completely unprovoked killing on Telegraph. In a situation that was strangely similar to the recent killing of Oscar Grant by a BART Police Officer, Rector was unarmed and was not a threat to the sheriff’s deputy who shot him. He was in a group of people standing on the roof of a building watching the chaos centered around People’s Park, when someone else threw a brick from a different rooftop. The deputy then raised his shotgun, aimed at Rector, and shot him dead for no legitimate reason.
The killings of James Rector and Oscar Grant are examples of what can happen when a law enforcement agency with no local ties operates within a community. The City of Berkeley has a Police Review Commission which “provides for community participation in setting Police Department policies, practices, and procedures” and “provides a means for investigation of complaints against the Police Department.” The PRC is a very effective tool for managing the Berkeley Police Department, but they will have no jurisdiction over the Sheriff’s Department activities on Telegraph. If BRT is built, we will have armed sheriff’s deputies patrolling Telegraph forever. They will not be part of our community, and the residents and government of Berkeley will have absolutely no ability to control their behavior. The Sheriff’s Department will have complete freedom to police Telegraph any way they want, with no community feedback or oversight.
In addition to the potential for excessive use of force, there is also the potential for inadequate policing. The BRT bus stations will be natural magnets for crime. With the large number of robberies that occur on Berkeley streets on a regular basis, it is quite possible that people waiting for BRT in the stations will be robbed too. Unlike BART, the BRT stations will not be large enough to have their own dedicated security personnel, and the Berkeley Police Department will not have the responsibility for policing them either. This could easily lead to a “law enforcement free zone” where no one is really responsible for the security of the stations and the enforcement of traffic laws. AC Transit has to pay the Sheriff’s Department for their services, and with their continual budget problems they might not want to spend much money on security.
Whatever happens, it will be out of the control of the people who live here, which I think will not be good for our community. Once the City Council gives away Telegraph, we’ll never be able to get it back.
Russ Tilleman is a Berkeley resident.