Berkeley considers removing police from traffic stops

The politically liberal city of Berkeley in Northern California is considering a proposal to shift traffic enforcement from armed police to unarmed city workers in a bid to curb racial profiling and reduce law enforcement encounters that can turn deadly, especially for Black drivers.

Experts say they believe the proposal before the Berkeley City Council Tuesday to separate traffic from law enforcement is the first of its kind in the U.S. as cities attempt broad public safety reforms following the death of George Floyd after a white officer pressed a knee to his neck in May.

Numerous studies have shown African American motorists are much more likely to be stopped by police than whites for minor traffic infractions — and end up as tragic headlines. Philando Castile, 32, was shot and killed after he was pulled over for a busted tail light during a traffic stop in 2016 in Minnesota. Sandra Bland, 28, died in a jail cell three days after being stopped for failing to signal when changing lanes in Texas in 2015.

“It’s been an incredible cry from the community to look at law enforcement, to look at the role of police in this country and in this city and calling on us, especially as a very progressive city, to lead the way and trying some new things, pushing the edge when we can,” said Rigel Robinson, a Berkeley city council member who is pushing the proposal.

If approved Tuesday night, the proposal by itself would change nothing right away. Instead, it calls on the city manager to convene a “community engagement process” to pursue the creation of a separate Berkeley transportation department to handle transportation projects as well as enforcement of parking and traffic.

It is one of several reforms that council members and Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin want the community to discuss as they re-imagine modern policing. State laws might need to be changed to allow for an overhaul, Robinson said.

“But if we’re serious about transforming the country’s relationship with police, we have to start by taking on the single most common interaction Americans have with law enforcement, and that’s traffic stops,” he said.

The Berkeley Police Department said Monday it does not comment on council legislation.

But in a joint statement, the police unions for Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco said that reckless driving, speeding, driving while under the influence are all dangerous “traffic” enforcement violations.

“We do not believe that the public wants lax enforcement of those incidents by non-sworn individuals. Traffic stops are some of the most dangerous actions police officers take. What happens when the felon with an illegal gun gets pulled over by the parking police?” the statement read, “Nothing good, we’re sure of that.”

The largely affluent and loudly progressive San Francisco suburb of 120,000 has led the country on environmental, cultural and equity issues. Last year the council voted to replace gender-specific words in the city code with gender-neutral terms, such as “maintenance hole” for “manhole” and “workforce” for “manpower.” Robinson was behind that effort as well.

Whites make up 54% of the city’s population with Asians at 20%, Latinos at 11% and African Americans at 8%. Yet African Americans accounted for half of 608 traffic stops conducted by Berkeley police between mid-March and mid-June this year, according to a city council memo. White drivers accounted for nearly a quarter of all stops.

A 2018 report by the Center for Policing Equity, a research and advocacy group based in Los Angeles, found that Black and Latino drivers were stopped at higher rates than whites by Berkeley police.

“It’s hugely significant,” Cheryl Phillips, co-founder of the Stanford Open Policing Project at Stanford University, said of the idea. “It has the potential to transform what is, I think, the most common interaction with police that people have.”

Data analyses by the open policing project also found that Black and Latino motorists were searched far more often than whites, she said, but the searches turned up fewer drugs, guns and other contraband. She also said it’s notable that the racial disparity in stops decline after sunset, presumably because it is harder to see the race of the driver, she said.

In California, Black drivers were stopped by law enforcement at 2.5 times the per-capita rate of whites and searched three times as often, according to a state report issued in January by the Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board. Officers were nearly three times as likely to search African Americans than whites, although white suspects were more likely to yield contraband or other evidence.