Past Year Dealt Setback for Citizen Oversight of Police

By Judith Scherr
Friday January 05, 2007

2006 was not a good year for Berkeley cops or for those who monitor them. 

The city’s 30-year public police complaint hearings have been shut down since September, significant particularly in a year in which Berkeley police have had to face the conviction of Cary Kent, an almost 20-year officer who stole drug evidence, the arrest of another officer for allegedly shooting his service revolver while drunk off duty and the investigation of a third officer for possible criminal activities. 

Those who monitor the police—especially Berkeley’s Copwatch—also reproach the city agency responsible for police accountability, the Police Review Commission (PRC), contending that it has not stood up to insist on a public discussion of police misconduct.  

“The PRC has not had one substantive discussion of the facts of the Cary Kent case,” said Andrea Prichett of Copwatch. “The first press release on the case was in January [2006] and nothing’s happened in that year.” 


Closed hearings 

One blow that has helped in the crippling of Berkeley’s citizen complaint process was the Aug. 31 California Supreme Court decision in Copley Press v. San Diego County. 

Because of the ruling in that case and that case’s similarity to a Berkeley Police Association lawsuit against the city, both concluding that officer discipline is confidential and cannot be aired in public, the city attorney shut down the PRC public police complaint hearings in mid September. 

Unlike Berkeley, after a brief suspension of its hearing process to assess the impact of Copley Press, Oakland’s Citizen’s Police Review Board is continuing to hear citizen complaints against the police. The process, however, has moved behind closed doors. 

Berkeley’s city attorney, however, recommended not resuming hearings locally until Oakland Superior Court has ruled on the BPA lawsuit. In November the city went to court to argue that its hearing process should be affected neither by Copley Press nor by the BPA lawsuit: the Berkeley PRC either sustains a citizen’s complaint or does not, but is not responsible for disciplining officers, City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque argued in court. The Northern California American Civil Liberties Union filed a friend of the court brief supporting the city’s position. 

The BPA countered that a police officer’s right to privacy is violated when the officer is “forced” to respond publicly to a civilian complaint. The judge will rule by February.  

In the meantime, hearing officers continue to investigate complaints, but the commission does not hold hearings on them.  

And, on advice from the city attorney, the commission has put on hold discussions on the Kent case.  

“We’re waiting to hear from the judge on the lawsuit,” said Sharon Kidd, Police Review Commission chair and member of a subcommittee that had planned to examine the Kent case, but which ceased its work in conjunction with the suspension of complaint hearings. 

Kidd said she disagrees with the decision to halt commission discussion of the Kent case. “It’s a criminal matter of public record—the commission made the decision,” she said. “The city attorney wanted us to put everything on the back burner.” 

Copwatch’s Prichett argued, however, that if the commission won’t take up its responsibilities, the City Council should step in—and that councilmembers have been derelict in their responsibilities. “When the PRC breaks down, it is the responsibility of the City Council members to personally attend the meetings,” Prichett said. 


Officer Malfeasance  

Early in the year, the police department suffered a blow when veteran Kent pleaded guilty to stealing drug evidence from a locked vault, which he was charged to oversee.  

Police reports showed that 286 envelopes with drug evidence had been tampered with. In addition to methamphetamine and heroin, the drugs Kent was convicted of taking, the tampered envelopes contained Tylenol with codeine, cocaine—powder and rock—unidentified pills, liquid morphine, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and more. Kent pleaded guilty in July to felony charges of grand theft and felony possession of heroin and methamphetamine and is serving a one-year home detention sentence in Contra Costa County. 

Over the year since the case first came to light, Copwatch repeatedly called for a public discussion of the case. They said too many questions had gone unanswered: Was Kent selling the drugs? Should he have been charged for impersonating a police officer when he bought drugs from an informant after he had resigned from the force? Was he the only officer involved? Why was his home not searched? 


Other Officers in Trouble 

Further impugning the department’s reputation was the incident of officer Sean Derry who in September was arrested by San Francisco Police after he allegedly shot his service revolver outside his San Francisco home while inebriated. Derry was placed on paid administrative leave immediately after his arrest and will remain so until his case is adjudicated in San Francisco. 

A third incident reported by various media, including the Daily Planet —all using anonymous sources—involves an officer said to be under investigation for allegedly stealing evidence. Like Derry, he has also been on paid administrative leave since August. The Daily Planet is not using his name since it appears that he has not been charged with a crime. 

In an interview Tuesday, Chief Doug Hambleton said press reports misrepresented the facts in the case of the unnamed officer. “Somebody made some wild speculations,” he said, adding that when the investigation is complete, he will clarify facts in the case. 

PRC Chair Kidd said the commission had not been briefed on either the Derry incident or the second one. “Hopefully, we’ll get more information on that from the chief’s report” at the next commission meeting, she said. 


BPD Makes Changes 

Asked what the department has done over the year to correct the situation that made it possible for Kent to steal drug evidence, Hambleton said he has tightened up the procedures in the evidence room. 

“The lieutenant in charge of the unit is paying a whole lot more attention to what’s going on,” he said. 

The department has also discussed the need to recognize colleagues who may be using drugs. “We’re paying a lot more attention to that,” Hambleton said, adding in defense of the department, “People don’t come in accusing Berkeley officers of planting drugs or beating people up. The vast majority are fine, outstanding officers who serve the community.” 

The Cary Kent case was “a pretty unusual circumstance,” Hambleton said. 

Drug theft by police from evidence rooms, however, is not that unusual. In April, the Daily Planet interviewed Joseph McNamara, a retired 15-year San Jose police chief who was quoted saying: “The police property room has been a special problem for a number of years ... Many departments have suffered the theft of drugs by sworn and non-sworn personnel.”  

One more tool to help police reorganize evidence storage procedures are recommendations prepared by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training and submitted to the chief in October. The PRC was slated to discuss the 12-page report at its November meeting, but did not, according to PRC Officer Victoria Urbi. It will likely be on the commission agenda at its next meeting. 

Urbi has cancelled the first PRC meeting of the year, Jan. 10. The commission is slated to meet Jan. 24, 7 p.m., North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave.