Berkeley Police Review Commission Calls For Halt to Tear Gas, Projectiles
A line of police officers marched down Telegraph Avenue during the Dec. 6 protests. (Pete Rosos/Berkeleyside)
After hearing the testimony of about 10 people who said they were treated unnecessarily roughly during a Dec. 6 protest, the Police Review Commission voted last week to ask Berkeley city officials to restrict the use of tear gas, over-the-shoulder baton hits and firing projectiles as a form of crowd control.
The commission, which put the issue on last Wednesday's agenda as an emergency measure, is hoping the Berkeley City Council will do the same at its meeting Tuesday.
“Our proposal was for a cooling-off period,” said Alison Bernstein, vice chair of the PRC. “[Using tear gas] is a crowd-control technique. We’re not saying it’s right. We’re not saying it’s wrong. But we are hearing serious concerns from the community.”
On the Saturday night of Dec. 6, Berkeley police and officers from other agencies fired tear gas and non-lethal projectiles into crowds of people who had gathered on Telegraph Avenue to protest the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police in Missouri and on Staten Island. The demonstration started off peacefully earlier that night as a group had marched from the UC Berkeley campus toward downtown, where some conducted a “die-in” by lying in the middle of the street.
After that, the protesters moved toward the Berkeley police station on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. According to Police Chief Michael Meehan, some protesters started to throw rocks and bricks at officers stationed there. The protesters pushed through a police line to make their way to University Avenue, where a few protesters smashed the windows of Trader Joe’s, Wells Fargo Bank and other businesses, starting around 6:40 p.m.
When the protesters made their way back to Telegraph Avenue between Bancroft and Dwight after 9 p.m., Berkeley police issued numerous verbal orders to disperse. When the crowd would not leave, police officers lined up and pushed the crowd south on Telegraph. Officers used their batons to rake and jab people — a common crowd-control technique.
But the situation deteriorated. Police fired tear gas into the crowd around 10:20 p.m. to force it to move south. Some police officers used their batons to hit protesters on the head, legs and arms, according to a number of people who were hit. Officers trapped part of the crowd at Telegraph and Dwight.
Moni Law, a housing counselor for the Rent Stabilization Board, said Friday her back was still hurting after she was hit from behind by a police baton. She said two Berkeley police officers swung at her even though she was standing peacefully in the street. She got their badge numbers and has filed an incident report with the PRC. So far, her complaint is the only one filed with the PRC about the protests, according to Byron Norris, an investigator for the commission.
Sgt. Chris Stines, president of the Berkeley Police Association, said he has worked at hundreds of protests during his 16 years as a Berkeley police officer and has never seen one as violent as the Dec. 6 event in Berkeley.
“I watched an officer get hit in the head with a crowbar,” said Stines. “I watched an officer next to me get hit with an ice pick. I had a bottle come flying at my head. I ducked, and it hit the officer behind me. There were multiple attacks against us that could have been deadly.”
Stines was injured when he arrested a man who had thrown a sandbag at an officer and dislocated his shoulder, he said. Stines cut up his knee badly.
Stines said police resorted to tear gas because the crowd was so violent. He does not think the PRC or City Council should take away the ability to use tear gas until there is a thorough and complete review of what happened Dec. 6. Stines said there is a lot of video that was produced by news agencies and protesters that can be reviewed.
“There needs to be due process before anyone rushes to judgment and takes away a tool that we don’t use frequently,” said Stines.
Meehan has said he cannot let his officers get injured, and that is why he approved the use of tear gas Dec. 6.
It is unclear what kind of review, if any, the city plans to do of the demonstration. Meehan said at a press conference Tuesday that his department will review complaints, including those of police officers covering their badges with tape so they cannot be identified.
City Council members Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguín have called for an independent investigation of police actions. City Councilwoman Linda Maio has also said the city should look into all of the allegations of force used by police, but she did not mention wanting a complete review of that night.
Berkeley police are already guided by a set of rules and procedures that outlines how they should act during protests, and how they should use both lethal and non-lethal force. Berkeley police are prohibited, for example, from using pepper spray as a form of crowd control. They are also barred from using chokeholds, like the one that contributed to Garner’s death in Staten Island. Berkeley police cannot use rubber bullets or Tasers either.
Existing rules allow the use of chemical agents, but there is nothing specific about tear gas. Bernstein said the entire PRC feels those circumstances need to be spelled out specifically, along with conditions when it may be appropriate to use over-the-shoulder baton hits and projectiles.
If the City Council does not take up the question as an emergency agenda item at its next meeting — scheduled for Tuesday — it will most likely look at the issue in January, said Bernstein.
Mayor Tom Bates said he, alone, does not have the authority to create an emergency agenda item. That would be up to the entire council to decide.
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