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Berkeley's Bold Vision for the Future of Policing

Berkeley, Calif., city leaders, advocates and experts imagine the future with police reform. The results are some practical steps that might, one day, result in new futures for the East Bay city. Here are some scenarios.

(TNS) — Six years ago in Ferguson, Mo., almost to the day, police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown Jr. A great unrest followed, first in Missouri, and then nationwide. On Nov. 24, 2014, a grand jury declined to indict Wilson. Brown’s family released a statement shortly thereafter. They were “profoundly disappointed” with the verdict. And they asked supporters to “join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.” This was back when Barack Obama was president; body cameras and bias training felt like substantive solutions to the intractable problem of police violence.

Six years later on May 25, George Floyd lost his breath and life as Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Again a great unrest followed, first in Minneapolis, and then nationwide.

Only this time the officer was charged and arrested — and the demands went beyond body cameras and reform. Bearing witness was no longer enough. In the weeks following Floyd’s death, protesters pushed to “defund” and “abolish” police departments nationwide. This, they said, was a time for a wholesale re-imagining of what public safety could look like.

Cities across the country are grappling with what this might mean. Locally, Berkeley has emerged as a potentially radical model for re-imagining the role of the police. In mid-July, City Council members voted to pass several public safety reforms in a single omnibus bill. Some grab headlines — a new traffic enforcement agency, separate from the Police Department, called BerkDOT; and a new network of first responders. Others are less flashy but no less integral to the overall vision — a deep dive into public safety data and significant budget reductions.

These reforms are years away. The council has committed to gathering extensive public input. Still, Ben Bartlett, one of eight Berkeley City Council members, calls this “a titanically different conversation” or “titanic stuff.”

“When you’re trying to do something unprecedented, there’s no precedent for it.”

This vision faces major barriers — a city budget decimated by a global pandemic, a police association protective of the bureau’s budget and a tangle of municipal, state and federal rulemaking, just to name a few. But, in the spirit of the Throughline, we asked city leaders, advocates and experts to imagine a future (10, 15, 20 years from now) should Berkeley make good on these promises. They didn’t offer much in the way of the fantastical. Reform, instead, was a matter of practical steps that might, one day, result in new futures. Here are some scenarios.

What might a traffic stop look like?

There is a future without traffic stops. This is a future without humans at the wheel of most vehicles — a future in which we can’t speed, run a red light or drive drunk. This is a future in which self-driving cars will shuffle us around using advanced artificial intelligence to navigate the road.

None of this is that far away. Self-driving vehicles could be commercially available in a decade and ubiquitous not long after that. “As a Black man, I can’t wait for that day,” Bartlett says. After all, in study after study, Black and brown drivers are stopped and searched more often during routine traffic patrols.

So what about in the meantime? BerkDOT and automated enforcement offer one future:

Berkeley decides to focus on the most critical threats to public safety, rather than minor traffic infractions. So there are speed and red-light cameras up on high-injury streets throughout the city. If you break the law, you get a ticket in the mail, no bias involved. (The council has also moved toward a restorative justice approach. Rather than issuing fines, which can be regressive and hit lower-income earners harder, the city requires community service as restitution.)

But this doesn’t happen often. Most of the time you’re a good driver. One night, though, your taillight is out. A BerkDOT officer — unsworn, unarmed and separate from the Police Department — notices and pulls you over. This won’t result in a pretextual vehicle search. It’s simply a matter of awareness.

“You can boil so much of this down to the idea that not every first response requires a first responder in the ways that we’re used to thinking about them,” says City Council member Rigel Robinson, who helped propose BerkDOT. “Not every call merits an armed reaction.”

The interaction goes smoothly. The official tells you about your taillight and issues a “fix-it” ticket. A week later you mail the department proof of the repaired light and avoid any fine.

“The basic idea would be that we would essentially separate most traffic enforcement activities from the police,” says Ben Gerhardstein, a member of the coordinating committee for Walk Bike Berkeley. (The group lobbied for the new department.) “A traffic stop would be a traffic stop. It wouldn’t be peering into somebody’s past, or an opportunity to get them. The point would be creating a safe street environment.”

“It can be a national model for how we shift traffic enforcement outside of police enforcement,” says Mayor Jesse Arreguin.

Back to today: Few cities release data about how their police officers spend their time. A recent analysis by the New York Times shows officers in Sacramento have spent nearly 20 percent of their time this year responding to traffic incidents. Seattle officers spent 15 percent of their time on traffic calls.

There has been some resistance to BerkDOT — drunk drivers, for instance, are a central concern. Mothers Against Drunk Driving has come out against it,arguing it takes significant training to be able to identify impaired driving. Proponents, like Gerhardstein, acknowledge this. “DUI enforcement scenarios are one that we’re going to have to be really careful about.”

And then there are concerns about unarmed officials handling these incidents. However, one recent and comprehensive study published in the Michigan Law Review examined thousands of stops over 10 years in more than 200 Florida agencies and found that “the rate for an assault against officers (whether it results in injury or not) was only 1 in every 6,959 stops.” Serious injury was 1 in every 361,111 stops.

Still, say Robinson, Bartlett, Gerhardstein and Arreguin, armed officers could be on call for the most extreme cases.

What happens when you call 911?

A family member is struggling with mental illness and you can’t help — or you see somebody on the street who needs assistance. You call 911. Emergency dispatch has been moved out of the Berkeley Police Department and is now under the city’s Fire Department. Of course, you don’t notice.

You talk to an operator as you describe your emergency. Or maybe you tap a button on your watch or phone. A combination of algorithms and artificial intelligence go to work. Using historical data and predictive models, the operator quickly assembles a Specialized Care Unit.

“One of the things we passed was a deep, deep analysis of call-and-response data,” Bartlett says. “The whole experience of dispatch is going to have to be upgraded. It’s going to have to become smarter. There are too many inputs for that person to figure out and respond to fast enough.”

This care unit might include emergency medical technicians, social workers, psychologists, firefighters — or, in very specific instances, armed officers. These individuals will have to be culturally competent, too, able to relate to the communities they serve. “Too often, we have the square peg, round hole issue … you’re going to need that (cultural competence) because the people who are most down and out are Black people and brown people.”

Based on an exhaustive study of previous calls, and the input from this call, the algorithm offers the dispatcher a combination of a social worker, psychologist and EMT. They put the call through and make sure that the group includes somebody who can connect with the person in need on a cultural and lingual level. Those same algorithms would also help calibrate staffing levels.

“So much of the heart of these issues is really about triage,” Robinson says. “Right now cities aren’t great at that.”

This group knows that if the situation turns violent, a police officer is on call. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, they are able to use a variety of best practices to calm the situation and offer access to wide-ranging social services.

Back to today: According to Mayor Arreguin, around 40% of calls to the city’s Police Department are related to “incidents around mental health and homelessness.” As a result, “increasingly our police are social workers.” This, he says, isn’t an effective use of their time. Instead the city should focus on “the programs and services that people need.”

Data is a key piece of all of this by helping to inform dispatch needs and identiy potential biases in policing.“We dramatically overestimate how much technology we use today in gauging our response” to crime, says John Roman, senior fellow for NORC, formerly the National Opinion Research Center, a nonpartisan research organization at the University of Chicago. “I think we’re all seen too many TV shows about how police police ... and our basic understanding of what they do and what their job entails doesn’t match reality.”

What would police officers do?

Police no longer patrol city streets looking for expired tags and broken taillights. They no longer spend time investigating noncriminal traffic incidents. They no longer spend time responding to calls about mental illness or homelessness.

“So much of their time is spent on social policing, responding to people in crisis, roving and looking for the weakest links, and the weakest links are people who are unable to get their taillight fixed,” Bartlett says. “Essentially, the vision for policing in Berkeley — and hopefully the rest of the country — is one of an elite cadre of licensed professional investigators who solve crimes.”

Rather than the long list of responsibilities police shoulder now, Berkeley officers would be tasked mainly with detective work, responding to violent incidents and acting as backup for Specialized Care Units. “They wouldn’t feel like an occupying army, and they wouldn’t feel like they’re stuck in the dregs,” Bartlett says. “I think it’ll lead to a happier force and better outcomes for the community.”

The police force would also function as a preventive presence — “a force mainly composed of people who are trying to solve problems before they start,” says Roman. This wouldn’t mean over-policing of certain demographics. Instead they would partner with community-based social workers to build relationships with the communities they serve.

“They have to be redirected to help people in a new way,” Bartlett says. “Otherwise the government itself will lack legitimacy.”

Back to today: Berkeley does not yet have public data around how its police officers spend their time — though that will come as part of the upcoming deep dive into public safety statistics. In Sacramento, however, noncriminal, traffic, medical and proactive incidents have, so far this year, accounted for 80% of how officers spend their time. Violent crime accounted for 4%.

There is so much that could go wrong before any of this goes right — the budgets and unions and bureaucratic red tape.

James Burch, the policy director of the Oakland Anti Police-Terror Project, looks to a broader and fuller social safety net — one that invests in housing and mental health and crisis intervention, so that calling a public safety hotline isn’t necessary to begin with. “Defunding the police,” he says, means increasing funding to any number of community-focused organizations. This in itself may have the potential to reduce the need for policing. A 2017 study out of New York University estimated that “every 10 additional organizations focusing on crime and community life in a city with 100,000 residents leads to a 9% reduction in the murder rate, a 6% reduction in the violent crime rate, and a 4% reduction in the property crime rate.”

Knowing this, Burch rejects the “urge to take our police force and imagine it in the future.” Let’s “step back from what our police is currently like,” Burch says. “We can imagine a different course for everything.”

The course the Berkeley City Council has chosen will go too far for some and not far enough for others. Still, it offers a course nonetheless, a course full of both uncertainty and hope.

©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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