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Police Review Commission Report Finds Rise in African-American Complaints

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday November 05, 2009 - 08:37:00 AM

A new report by the Berkeley Police Review Commission found that the majority of complaints filed against police officers are by African-Americans, a fact some city councilmembers view as troubling. 

Although the propotion, which stands at 67 percent in 2008, shows an increase from previous years, PRC Chair Sherry Smith warned that the overall number of complaints the commission received from the public annually was still significantly small. 

The PRC received 45 complaints last year, of which 28 were from African-Americans. Fifteen of those were made by African-American men, while the remainder were filed by women. 

“It’s very important to understand what statistics can do to you,” Smith said of the report. “I don’t see it as a problem, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss it.” 

However, at least three councilmembers said they wanted the city to look into the sudden hike, following which City Manager Phil Kamlarz said he would ask his staff to compare the numbers with the Berkeley Police Department’s internal arrest records. 

“It’s very disturbing,” said Councilmember Darryl Moore. “No other race or ethnicity comes even close. Why is that so?” 

Police Review Commission Officer Victoria Urbi said that former Police Chief Doug Hambleton had attributed the occurrence to police officers having to deal more with blacks than with any other ethnic group every day. 

Some councilmembers recommended mandatory racial profiling training for all police officers. 

“These are unusually high numbers,” said Councilmember Max Anderson. “Over the years the African-American population in the city has decreased. This represents something almost contradictory.” 

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said that while “Berkeley was blessed to have a great police department who want to make sure everyone is treated fairly,” it is important to look at what was causing the spike. 

The report also said that most of the Berkeley Police Department’s interactions were with African-Americans, the majority of whom lived in South Berkeley. 

The PRC conducted seven closed board of inquiry hearings, five of which resulted in sustained allegations. 

Although Berkeley voters established the PRC in 1973, the first ordinance of its kind in California, to carry out civilian oversight of the Berkeley Police Department, a 2007 ruling by the Alameda County Superior Court ordered all hearings to be private, citing complaints against police officers as confidential, personnel records. 

Urbi told the council that there was less public participation at PRC meetings since the court had ordered closed hearings. 

She said that the commission wanted to do more outreach to let the public know that, although the hearings were closed, the meetings were still open to everyone. 

“We really need to reform and strengthen the PRC—it has weakened because of all these court challenges,” Councilmember Kriss Worthington told the Planet. 

Worthington said that, although he was worried about the rise in the number of African American complainants, “the biggest cause for concern was the dozens of complaints that were wiped out and not even heard.” 

In 2008, the PRC closed a total of 86 cases, of which 43 were closed because the one-year deadline to hear them expired due to pending litigation. 

The commission was not able to hear or close any cases from Sept. 2006 to Nov. 2007, because the Police Association filed a lawsuit to protect police officers’ privacy under the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights. 

“By the time all these cases got around to being heard, they were all stale cases,” Worthington said. “It’s grossly unfair to all those people whose cases were not heard.” 

Smith said the commission’s hands had been tied at that time. 

“Anything we did would have gone on appeal,” she said. “We were stuck. It will not occur again.” 

The remaining cases were closed by boards of inquiry, dismissed or rejected for submitting late files. 

Last year, the PRC held two public hearings regarding an officer-involved shooting and crowd-control issues at the Marine Recruitment Center in downtown Berkeley. 

Smith said the PRC was ramping up its operations and had even hired a new investigator to examine complaints. 

Although the commission investigates complaints, its findings cannot be used for disciplinary action against officers. 

“Only the police chief and the city manager know who is being disciplined,” Smith said. “There is no way for us to find out or follow through. Sometimes an officer disappears or is pulled off the beat, and you can guess what happened.”