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Policing in the Shadows

Over the years, the UC Berkeley Police Department has escaped scrutiny, despite evidence of racial profiling, biased policing, and a lack of oversight.


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  • Illustration by Paul Haggard

Earlier this year, UC Berkeley workers rallied to protest the university's treatment of employees. The Feb. 1 demonstration commemorated the 50-year anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. joining striking sanitation workers in Memphis and was designed to lift up UC workers' demands for a fair contract.

The protest, hosted by members of the campus' chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 3299, climaxed when more than 100 demonstrators blocked the streets south of campus. Among them was David Cole, a 51-year-old campus cook and union member. During the protest, UC Police Department officers tackled and arrested Cole as he marched with a picket sign. What led to his arrest has been disputed and is still under investigation.

UC Berkeley officials immediately blamed Cole. The night of the protest, Marc Fisher, vice chancellor of administration, alleged in an email to all staff and students that when a car attempted to move through protesters blocking an intersection, Cole ran toward the driver "and threw the sign he was carrying at the vehicle." Fisher said the driver complained to UCPD and requested a citizen's arrest, so police arrested Cole. "When a UCPD officer attempted to detain the employee, he became uncooperative and disregarded instructions from the officer," Fisher further alleged in his email. "Due to the [Cole's] resistance, multiple officers were needed to take him into custody."

But Cole's union and staffers from Cal disputed that narrative and alleged that UCPD singled out and "assaulted" Cole because he is African American. Fela Thomas, president of the Black Staff and Faculty Organization, emailed Chancellor Carol Christ, calling on her to have the charges against Cole dropped. "David was singled out as the only Black person and was aggressively taken into custody," wrote Thomas, based on eyewitness accounts of protesters he said he had spoken with. Cole's union alleged that UC cops "deployed police tactics more befitting of the Jim Crow South" and noted how Cole was still holding a picket sign when the officers grabbed and tackled him onto the sidewalk.

Video of Cole being tackled by three UC police officers spread across social media. Within days, the Facebook video of Cole's arrest had more than 3,000 shares and 100,000 views. After being hospitalized and receiving stitches from the ordeal, Cole was arrested by police on charges of vandalism and resisting arrest. Supporters camped outside Berkeley's city jail for his release.

"I have three stitches in my eye, one in my nose. My leg is hurting. My foot is bothering me," Cole told reporters after his late-night release from custody. His union, AFSCME, later protested outside the campus' administration building, calling for charges against Cole to be dropped.

In the subsequent weeks, union organizers and Black staff hosted workshops about policing on campus. Most significantly, the use of force during Cole's arrest resurfaced long-simmering concerns that UCPD over-polices Black and Latinx people and lacks adequate oversight.

And a new Express analysis of UC police and its practices, along with the campus oversight panel that is supposed to monitor the department, also reveals that community concerns about UCPD's failure to address racial profiling appear to be justified.

Black students have complained for years about being disproportionately policed by UCPD. When Black students blockaded Sather Gate in 2010, student literature from the demonstration claimed that UCPD would regularly walk through the weekly "Black Wednesday" gathering near Sproul Plaza with police K-9 dogs in a manner students felt threatened by. To date, however, students have not had statistical evidence of biased policing.

But a new analysis of police stop data by the Express provides that evidence: UCPD has overpoliced Black and Latinx people during the past eight years, based on a comparison of campus and community demographics.

Since 2010, UCPD has collected and published vehicle stop data of motorists aggregated by race, gender, and campus affiliation. From 2010 to 2017, UCPD stopped 16,962 vehicles, of which 45 percent of the motorists, or 5,509, were white, 18 percent Asian, 12 percent Black, and 9 percent Latinx.

But according to campus data, just 3 percent of UC Berkeley undergraduates identify as Black.

Asians and white undergraduate students represent the largest student groups at Cal, at 40 and 29 percent respectively. About 12 percent of undergraduates are Latinx.

Because UCPD does not publish disaggregated data of traffic stops, it's difficult to determine at what rates police are stopping students, staff, or people who have no affiliation with Cal. Federal law requires campus police to maintain a log of daily police activity, and three reviews of Cal's crime logs conducted by the Express during the first half of 2018 showed most people contacted by UCPD had no affiliation with the university.

According to recent census estimates, Berkeley's city demographics are roughly 55 percent white, 20 percent Asian, 10 percent Latinx, 9 percent Black, and 4 percent multiracial.

An Express analysis of UCPD's published traffic stop data reveals the UC Berkeley's campus police have been stopping, searching, and arresting African Americans and Latinx in disproportionate numbers, regardless of whether the people stopped were students or members of the broader community. Black motorists were nearly twice as likely to be pulled over compared to white drivers over eight years.

From 2010-2017, UCPD reported arrests of 161 drivers. Black and Latinx drivers accounted for 19 and 21 percent of those arrested. Both Black and Latinx drivers were three times more likely to be arrested than whites. Black and Latinx drivers were also more likely than white drivers to receive citations.



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