Grassroots coalition forces public debate on police policies in Berkeley, CA

The Berkeley City Council postponed a vote Tuesday night after dozens of residents spoke in favor of proposed measures to curb domestic surveillance, stop militaristic police programs, and promote immigrant and First Amendment rights.

The proposals have been championed by the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley, a diverse group including leaders of several local organizations advised by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and supported by councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin. If ultimately enacted, the coalition's proposals will place several limits on the  Berkeley Police Department (BPD).

First, they would limit the relationship between the BPD and the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), a fusion center. Fusion centers are regional inter-agency collaborations that collect, retain, analyze and disseminate intelligence data, including information about innocuous, legal behavior included in Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) submitted by municipal, state, and federal police.  SARs generally reveal private details about the lives of law-abiding people -- and even their constitutionally protected activities.

"It's law enforcement processing noncriminal activity in order to create a politically inspired federal database," said George Lippman, Chair of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission and coalition member.

A Public Records request compiled by the Asian Law Caucus on behalf of the coalition revealed several SARs submitted by the BPD to the NCRIC in the past 10 months.  Roughly half of them were based on First Amendment activity, including using "Sovereign Citizen rhetoric" and wearing multiple military medals.

The coalition has also proposed to protect non-violent civil disobedience actions from police surveillance. "We understand people will be arrested for civil disobedience," said Lippman. "But we don't expect for them to be spied on, infiltrated, and intimidated like in Chicago." [Note: Chicago has a particular pattern of suppressing dissent, visible both during the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention and also the more recent NATO protests earlier this month]

Also addressed are the city's mutual aid agreements with nearby jurisdictions.  The coalition managed to postpone the renewal of some after the BPD played a role in the brutal eviction of Occupy protesters in Oakland last October, which sent an Iraq war vet to the hospital in a coma.

"Berkeley has one of the better police forces and we don't want to be associated with those who don't come up to our standards," said Willie Phillips, a coalition member and NAACP board member. "We can't be mashed in with their conduct if we have the choice to not participate."

Accordingly, the coalition has drafted stricter guidelines limiting the conditions under which the BPD can grant requests for mutual aid, particularly protecting civil disobedience and dissent.

Beyond limiting surveillance and protecting dissent, the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley is also looking to end the BPD's participation in the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), a program that gathers domestic and international police forces to train in paramilitary, anti-terrorism operations. UASI also serves as a funding mechanism for local police to obtain military equipment, such as drone aircraft increasingly used by other cities.

The BPD, for its part, is trying to obtain a millitary armored personnel carrier, reportedly for use at UC-Berkeley football games and the Solano Stroll neighborhood. But according to Sharon Adams, coalition member and board member of the National Lawyers Guild, "games have been going on for years, and the Stroll...these are just families. The police simply claim the right to militarize, but it's a violation to the Constitution from beginning to end."

Willie Phillips noted a further problem, in "a real tendency to abuse such policies if they're not given the kind of transparency they need." A basic problem amplifying the others, the coalition has emphasized, is that many of the agreements in question have never been published.

Berkeley law states that agreements between the BPD and other agencies must be written and published. The policy was imposed in the first place because of abuses incurred under COINTELPRO, when local police colluded with federal agencies to infiltrate political activists. Although nearly identical programs have been resurrected today, the BPD’s agreements with neither UASI nor NCRIC have satisfied this legal requirement.

Finally, under the coalition's proposals, Berkeley's Sanctuary City Resolution will also be updated to empower the BPD to decline compliance with administrative detainer requests from ICE. In effect, no one would be held because of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement hold -- a key feature of federal biometric ID and deportation programs such as Secure Communities.

"People are being adversely affected," said coalition and East Bay Sanctuary Covenant member Manuel de Paz. "[With our changes] less people will be unsafe, less people will be deported, and less families separated."

"When peoples' rights are abused we need to be able to collaborate, build coalitions, and bridge gaps between affected communities," said Phillips, observing how a diverse coalition has mobilized to advocate for the proposed changes. "It makes us much more effective when anyone's rights are violated."

The Council is scheduled to take up the issues again on June 19th, when coalition members hope it won't be punted for a fourth time. "Despite the delays, people are still awake and have continued showing up," a proud de Paz said.

Veteran Francis Richard Brennan certainly has. At Tuesday's hearing, exhorting his elected representatives to take a stand for transparency and civil rights, he said, "My family and my ancestors have served in every war going back to the Revolutionary War. Now we need to fight and fight and fight to protect the Bill of Rights and the Constitution."

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