June 20, 2012
By Doug Oakley
Bay Area News Group
The City Council has decided to move forward with police reforms that favor civil liberties over state and federal intelligence gathering that ramped up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Calls for reform were inspired last fall after the Berkeley council questioned why police officers were being used to control demonstrators during Occupy protests.
The council decided Tuesday night to approve recommendations that would make it more difficult for police to report suspected terrorists and criminals to regional and federal authorities; stop holding some people in its jails the federal government wants for immigration violations; and restrict police from gathering intelligence on people engaged in nonviolent, non-felonious civil disobedience.
The vote also called for City Council approval on some federal government grants to police, to provide more information on police training with federal money and require police to disclose instances of mutual aid to other departments.
The council started looking into the issue last fall when a package of agreements governing police powers with other agencies came before them at the same time Occupy protests in Oakland and at UC Berkeley were heating up and police in those places were criticized for using too much force.
The reforms were crafted with input from the city's police review commission, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and a group called the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley.
Councilman Kriss Worthington said raising the bar on reporting suspicious people to federal and regional authorities is needed, maintaining that the U.S. government routinely violates the civil liberties of its citizens.
"Sadly we live in a country where illegal wars have been waged by our own government," Worthington said. "We know our government has done illegal things. When we get suspicious about suspicious activity reporting, it is not unfounded. It is based on real world violations of rights here and around the world."
The City Council will visit the issue again in September with specific language for approval.
If the Council formally approves the new policies in September, it will join Santa Clara County and Cook County in Illinois, which are also not cooperating with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on immigration detainers. The detainers allow local jailers to hold people who have been arrested so the federal government can examine their immigration status and possibly deport them.
Berkeley's new policy would prohibit the police department from holding prisoners beyond their normal release for the federal government unless they have been convicted of a serious or violent crime in the last five years.
Julia Mass, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, applauded the move as a public safety issue. She said holding immigrants accused of nonviolent offenses for the federal government could discourage them from going to police when crimes have occurred.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency "remains committed" to working with local law enforcement to make communities safer, a spokeswoman said in a prepared statement. The statement said that some aliens arrested on minor criminal charges "may also have more serious criminal backgrounds which disguise their true danger to society."
When Berkeley's city manager returns to the council with specific language for the policy in September, it will include a higher bar for police to jump when reporting suspicious people to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center. The center shares information with other local law enforcement and the FBI about suspected terrorists and regional crimes.
Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said he estimates the department makes about 10 reports of suspicious people to the center each year.
The center, created after the Sept. 11 attacks, is one of 50 across the country, including 26 in urban areas, said Mike Sena, deputy director of the Northern California center.
Sena said the center receives tips on suspicious individuals from all sources, including police and then analyzes the information. About 15 percent of the tips are sent to other local law enforcement and the FBI, he said. Sena told the council it has a long list of activities that constitute suspicious activity.
The Berkeley City Council likely will eliminate some of those activities the center considers suspicious but retain those that tend toward more criminal activity when it finalizes the reforms in September.
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.