In a landmark, nine-hour meeting, the Berkeley City Council approved a sweeping set of changes early Wednesday morning to “transform” public safety that calls for a goal of reducing the police department budget by 50%.
In a virtual meeting that ended around 3 a.m. and was attended by more than 300 people — with public speakers overwhelmingly calling for defunding police immediately — the council members approved an omnibus bill crafted by Mayor Jesse Arreguin over a proposal by Council member Cheryl Davila. Her proposal specifically called to defund police by 50%.
“I want you to know that we are listening to what you are saying — that we agree that we need to seize the opportunity to look at transforming public safety in Berkeley,” Arreguin told the audience. “And for far too long, public safety has been equated with more police.
“Now is the time to innovate, and we must meet the moment,” he continued. “We must be both creative and imagine an alternative approach to public safety, to make clear and demonstrate a commitment as well as timelines to implement this to work.”
Among the sweeping changes approved by the council were:
— a first-in-the-nation strategy to remove traffic enforcement out of the police department and into the hands of unarmed civilians in a new city Department of Transportation;
— removing homeless outreach and services and mental health and crisis management from armed officers;
— a goal of reducing the police budget by 50%;
— establishing a Community Safety Coalition and Steering Committee; and
— assessing and analyzing police calls and responses as well as the overall police department budget, including overtime costs.
“This is going to be a community-driven process,” Arreguin said. “Taken together, these proposals initiate a restructuring and redefinition of health and safety for all Berkeleyans with the immediate, intermediate and longer term steps to transform our city into a new model that’s community oriented and equitable.”
The mayor’s proposal calls for spending $160,000 from the city auditor’s budget to assess police calls and responses, and $200,000 to hire outside consultants who will examine the department’s policies toward alternative and restorative justice models. Those recommended policy changes would be examined as early as the November budget process, and may be considered in April and June of 2021, Arreguin said.
Arreguin’s measure also listed Vice Mayor Sophie Hahn, and Council members Ben Bartlett and Kate Harrison as co-authors.
Two weeks ago, the Berkeley City Council became the latest city to partially defund its police department — slashing $9.2 million from its budget. The cuts, which amounted to a 12% reduction in the police department budget, were used to address a city budget deficit of $39 million.
At the time, Arreguin described the 12% cut as “a down payment in reimagining public safety in Berkeley.”
Meanwhile, Council member Davila, who voted to abstain in approving Arreguin’s proposal, exhorted her council colleagues that “this is the time to have courage … please honor this request of the people” for her measure to defund police by 50%. She noted the hundreds of residents who supported her proposal at the council meeting and via hundreds of email letters.
Arreguin, Davila and the other council members have repeatedly said their actions followed increasing calls by Berkeley residents to change the fundamental way of policing — as well as the police budget — following the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Early on in the meeting, Davila’s call for a vote of no confidence in Berkeley police Chief Andrew Greenwood failed to gain support from her council colleagues. Davila sought the vote following remarks Greenwood made during a June council meeting about Black Lives Matter.
At the June 9 meeting, Greenwood was asked what officers would resort to if their lives were threatened and they didn’t have tear gas, Berkeleyside reported. “Firearms. We can shoot people,” Greenwood said.
Davila said she would call for the vote on Greenwood at a later date.
Meanwhile, Arreguin’s legislation included a proposal by Council member Rigel Robinson, who called for creating a new city department of transportation with a staff of unarmed employees who would write parking citations and handle traffic violation stops.
Robinson mentioned Philando Castile, Sandra Bland and Maurice Gordon, three Black motorists killed by police during traffic stops across the nation for minor offenses. “A serious discussion of the role of modern policing, and the harm it has disproportionately inflicted on Black communities, is incomplete without a focus on traffic enforcement,” he said in a previous statement about his proposal.
Police pull over more than 20 million motorists a year nationwide, making traffic stops the most common interaction Americans have with officers, according to Robinson’s office. A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report found Blacks were more likely to be pulled over than whites and Hispanics.
And a 2018 report by Center for Policing Equity found that Berkeley police stopped Black and brown drivers and pedestrians at even higher rates. It found that in 2012-16, 36% of drivers stopped by police were Black, even though Black residents make up only 8% of Berkeley’s population. The report also said Black drivers were 6.5 times more likely than white drivers to be stopped by Berkeley police.
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