Berkeley city lawmakers approved a plan on Wednesday to ban law enforcement officers from conducting “routine” traffic stops, and to entrust unarmed city transportation department personnel to pull drivers over instead.
Over 300 people attended the nine-hour virtual city council meeting, which didn’t wrap up until approximately 3 a.m. on July 15.
An overwhelming majority of those who attended the overnight meeting demanded that the Berkeley Police Department (BPD) be immediately defunded, the East Bay Times reported.
“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,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin said during the session. “For far too long, public safety has been equated with more police.”
Arreguin, who co-authored the sweeping changes along with Vice Mayor Sophie Hahn, Councilmember Kate Harrison, and Councilmember Ben Bartlett, declared that “now is the time to innovate,” the East Bay Times reported.
“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,” he said.
In the predawn hours, the council voted to strip traffic enforcement duties from the BPD and to hand those responsibilities to the yet-to-be-established Berkeley Department of Transportation (BerkDOT).
That portion of the proposal was the brainchild of City Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who touted it as part of the city’s response to the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement, the East Bay Times reported.
“Driving while black shouldn’t be a crime,” Robinson told The New York Times. “If we’re serious about transforming the country’s relationship with police, we have to start by taking on Americans’ most common interaction with law enforcement — traffic stops.”
According to Robinson, “far too often, routine traffic stops turn deadly,” the East Bay Times reported.
“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 reiterated.
“Berkeley residents have made it clear that the current model of policing is not working for our city,” Robinson opined. “I’m excited to continue the conversation on reimagining public safety, starting with the way we conduct enforcement on our streets.”
The BerkDOT will be staffed with unarmed city employees, the East Bay Times reported.
Those employees will be responsible for conducting traffic stops, citing drivers for traffic violations, and issuing parking citations.
Police will still be allowed to respond if the drivers pull weapons on the city employees.
It’s not clear how the city will grant the authority to detain people to non-police employees.
Police will no longer handle mental health, crisis management or homeless outreach matters under the approved changes, and the council said it has a “goal” of slashing the department’s overall budget by 50 percent, the East Bay Times reported.
Arreguin further proposed spending $200,000 to hire consultants to help revamp the BPD’s policies towards alternative and restorative justice models.
Another $160,000 will be utilized to examine BPD calls and how they responded to them.
The changes come on the heels of the Berkeley City Council slashing the city’s police budget by $9.2 million, the East Bay Times reported.
Arreguin hailed the defunding effort as “a down payment in reimagining public safety in Berkeley.”
“We don’t have all of the answers yet, but somebody has to break ground on this,” Arreguin told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Berkeley is committed that this is a conversation we need to explore.”
The Berkley Police Department (BPD) did not comment on the BerkDOT measure, and noted that the agency “does not comment on City legislation.”
Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) spokesperson Sergeant Ray Kelly said that establishing an entirely new department to handle traffic violations seems to fly in the face of budget conservation.
“From a management perspective and budget perspective, it doesn’t make sense unless you’re a major metropolitan city,” Sgt. Kelly told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Why create more bureaucracy when traffic can be done very professionally, with a slight learning curve, with city departments?”
But Arreguin argued that “it’s probably cheaper” to use unarmed employees to carry out such tasks.
“The police budget is currently 44 percent of our general funds,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s not sustainable for our city.”
Lawmakers in New York City and Los Angeles have expressed interest in developing similar legislation for their cities, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.