By Doug Oakley
Citing excessive force and free speech violations by police during protests in Oakland and at UC Berkeley, the Berkeley City Council this week refused a mutual aid agreement with university police and nixed agreements with other police agencies on regional domestic surveillance.
Council members used news reports of police using excessive force at the Occupy Oakland protests and at previous protests at UC Berkeley as reason for not renewing the agreements that usually are approved each year without fanfare.
In addition, the council did not renew an agreement with the federal government on detaining illegal immigrants at the city jail.
The 8-0 vote, with Mayor Tom Bates abstaining, means the council will revisit those agreements at a later date after scrutinizing them more thoroughly.
Other mutual aid agreements with police departments around the Bay Area included in the 900-plus page document before the council were approved as part of the vote.
The two-way mutual aid agreements allow other police departments to call on Berkeley police for help during demonstrations, natural disasters and other big events and for Berkeley to do the same when it needs help.
"Some of my constituents believe the right to demonstrate is something we should respect," Councilman Jesse Arreguin said. "That's my issue with the UC police department, and I don't know how we address that."
A UC Berkeley police spokesman did not immediately return a phone call for comment.
Although the council approved the mutual aid agreement with Oakland, in the future it will be discussing changes to general policies that govern all such agreements, including the types of incidents that qualify as real emergencies, Arreguin said.
Arreguin said he has no problem with the majority of agreements the Berkeley police department has with other agencies, but "my concerns are with specific agreements."
"I think our police do an exceptional job of protecting people's civil liberties," Arreguin said. "We do a much better job than Oakland."
Referring to recent charges of excessive use of force on Occupy Oakland protesters when Berkeley police have been called to Oakland to help, Bates asked Berkeley police Chief Michael Meehan, who is in charge in such situations.
"We always send a command level officer, and they are in control of our force," Meehan said.
"When Oakland or someone says we need to move these people out and use force and tear gas and all that, how do our people react? Can we say no?" Bates asked.
"If it's a violation of our policy, we can say no," Meehan said.
Meehan said the mutual aid agreements are important because Berkeley needs help from time to time.
"It's a two-way street," Meehan said after the meeting. "If we don't have these agreements, most of the agencies might be reticent to provide mutual aid to us."
Councilman Max Anderson said he believes Berkeley police are "head and shoulders above the rest" when it comes to protecting civil liberties.
"But I don't see that kind of commitment in other agencies," Anderson said. "Someone who aims a tear-gas canister at someone's head, shoots and fades back into the crowd, I have a problem with that.
"It's true anonymous mobs do bad things, but most people are out there proudly carrying signs and doing nothing more than exercising their rights. If we turn on people like this, this country is in huge trouble."
Councilwoman Susan Wengraf cautioned her colleagues that Berkeley is going to need help sooner or later from other police departments.
"This is a city with an earthquake fault running through it, we're next to a park where a wild fire is going to come from, and there have been gas line explosions in neighboring areas, so we need these agreements," Wengraf said.
Councilwoman Linda Maio said holding up the mutual aid agreements is sending a message.
"We need to let people know we are listening, watching and we are going to react," Maio said.
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley