Public Comment

New: Berkeley Police Must Respect the Right to Observe

Andrea Prichett
Sunday August 23, 2015 - 10:42:00 PM

The whole policy needs to be revised with the help of community input

A new Berkeley Police Department General Order (W-01) issued on July 21, 2015 marks a serious abridgement of the right to observe in Berkeley even though it looks much like a training bulletin that has been around for years. The previous training bulletin on “The Right To Watch­­ (Training Bulletin 91 issued in 1983 and reissued by Chief Meehan) required officers to put the “least possible restriction on citizen observation of police officer conduct.” In the new general order, the language is changed to say that officers should “minimize restrictions on public observation”, but it doesn’t say to what degree they should do this. This change has big implications for Copwatchers in the streets trying to record citizen-police interactions. 

The old training bulletin meant that police were expected to make every effort to accommodate citizen observation of police. The new general order makes it sound like our ability to observe is going to be up to each officer depending on the situation. What in this policy will protect us from officers who claim that there is a threat to safety when really they just want to prevent us from observing? 

The policy also includes some problematic language such as “citizens have the right to observe; photograph and video record the officers from a safe distance.” Copwatch does not believe that it is the officers who should get to decide what is a “safe distance”. There is no legal definition of “safe distance” and, as we have seen numerous times, some police believe that a “safe distance” is farther (sometimes several blocks away) from the scene. There is already a law (Penal Code 148) against interfering with police officers. BPD officers have routinely threatened observers and copwatchers for merely witnessing scenes and have often demanded that observers remove themselves even when no credible threat to safety existed. 

This copwatch video from 8-5-15 demonstrates how the new policy might impact the right to observe and raises many important issues that the PRC and City Council must decide: 


Worst of all, is the third section of the General Order that says that citizens can observe police but that “the confidentiality of the matter being discussed with a suspect, victim, witness, or reporting party is not compromised except with concurrence of the citizen and the officer involved.” This policy suggests that citizens can’t witness a conversation between a cop and a detainee if the cop doesn’t give consent. This is not acceptable and it is not constitutional. BPD needs to get familiar with current legal interpretations. 

Two court cases have been decided by Federal courts that affirm the 1st Amendment protection of our right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances”. The first one was Simon Glik vs. City of Boston. The other case was from ACLU vs. Alvarez coming out of Chicago and challenged the anti-video interpretation of wiretapping statutes. In both cases, the court found that we have RIGHTS that are not subject to the consent of any police officer and we can videotape so long as we don’t interfere. 

The Berkeley City Council and the Police Review Commission must do all in their power to protect the right of all our citizens to watch police and to punish officers who threaten, harass or intimidate people from copwatching and documenting officer conduct in our city. Copwatch organizers are calling on members of the public to read and help to rewrite the new General Order and demand that the Police Review Commission hold a public hearing on this issue. Contact the Police Review Commission at and demand our constitutional right to observe police activity. 


Andrea Prichett is a founding member of Berkeley Copwatch (