By Kritika Singh
BERKELEY — In February the city of Berkeley made legislative history when its officials unanimously voted to deprioritize traffic stops for “low-level” offenses, and instead encouraged officers to focus their efforts on dangerous driving violations and investigative stops.
The move is part of a greater policing reform package that has been in the works for the past year and aims to address racial disparities in relation to the Berkeley Police Department’s operations.
The package particularly relies on data compiled by the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) in 2018. In collaboration with the city, the CPE found that Black and Hispanic drivers and pedestrians were significantly more likely to be stopped by Berkeley police officers, yet only half as likely to actually be arrested.
Hoping to build better relations between law enforcement officers and the community, the city aims to shift low-level traffic enforcement to unarmed civil servants through a new department called BerkDOT (Berkeley Department of Transportation). This goal currently faces struggles with state law, which dictates that civilians may not perform traffic stops because they are not properly licensed to do so.
Councilmember Rigel Robinson remains hopeful in the face of these struggles, explaining, “This is uncharted territory. We’re asking questions that, I think, too few cities have been asking themselves about the role of policing in our society.”
Police unions, on the other hand, are concerned that the new reform package is a threat to public safety. Berkeley Police Association President Sgt. Darren Kacelek insisted that, “These so-called reforms will result in more and more paperwork, reducing police work that keeps our community safe and keeps officers connected with citizens.”
Kaceleck’s claims have been largely discredited by a growing body of research which shows that traffic stops have done little to decrease crime rates. One study found that for every 1,000 non-moving violation stops, only 21 resulted in an arrest or recovery of drugs/contraband.
Some former law enforcement officials across the nation, such as Jerry Wiley, have even come forward to share their personal experiences with the issue. Wiley explained that officers in his force were often “expected to show productivity by making arrests and writing citations” leading to the “creat[ion of] criminals” in order to keep enforcement numbers high.
This is especially problematic for low-income and POC communities, with Wiley’s investigation into traffic stops concluding that “some neighborhoods with larger populations of black people and poor people experienced police stops more than 10 times the rate of predominantly white and wealthier neighborhoods.”
Berkeley’s new reform package is also particularly relevant in the context of the recent fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright in Minnesota. Police say Wright, who was only 20 years old, was pulled over for having an expired registration on his car. Wright’s mother, however, says that her son had called her just minutes before his death to let her know that he had been pulled over for having an air freshener on his rear view mirror.
Wright’s murder reflects a larger trend in policing across the country. According to data collected by the Mapping Police Violence project, in 2020 alone there were 121 reports of people killed by police during traffic stops. This amounts to a total of 10 percent of all fatal police encounters.
While officials and activists alike are hopeful about the potential of Berkeley’s new reforms to alleviate these trends, it remains to be seen how quickly and smoothly they will be implemented, given that the former police chief, Andrew Greenwood, retired last month.
The city manager told council members in a recent memo that the search to replace Greenwood will take approximately six months, and that it “will be a nationwide search that is collaborative, inclusive and considers the needs and priorities of the community, the Police Department, and the City Council.”
Until the search is completed, Capt. Jennifer Louis will serve as interim chief.
Kritika Singh is a writer for The Vanguard at Berkeley’s prison reform desk. She is a freshman at UC Berkeley studying Political Science. She is from Tracy, CA.
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