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Judge Denies Open Police Complaint Hearings

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday February 13, 2007

The city went to court in November to fight a Berkeley Police Association lawsuit which argued that open police complaint hearings and public availability of records of those hearings violate a police officers’ right to privacy. 

In an opinion dated Friday, Alameda County Superior Court Winifred Y. Smith denied the city’s claim.  

The city had countered the police association claim by contending that because the city manager and police chief discipline the officers and the Police Review Commission does not, the hearings and the records thereof should continue to be public. 

But Smith wrote: “It is undisputed that the city manager and the chief of police have the authority to impose discipline on an officer based on PRC findings.” 

Further, she wrote that the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act “affords peace officers important rights when ‘any public safety officer is under investigation and subjected to interrogation by his commanding officer, or any other member of the employing safety department that could lead to punitive action.’” 

And she said that PRC records are maintained by the peace officers’ employing agency, the city of Berkeley. 

Attorney James Chanin, who helped write the initiative that created Berkeley’s Police Review Commission and was a member of the city’s first PRC, noted that the open hearings and records had survived numerous court challenges over the 30 years of its existence.  

The judge’s ruling, he said, is within the context of today’s political climate in which “California is moving to be the most restrictive state in the nation” with respect to police and prisons, including denying the right of journalists to interview prisoners.  

It will take the legislature to reverse this trend, Chanin said, adding, “But legislators are intimidated by the Police Officers Association and by the money from the Prison Guards Association.” 

City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque was not available for comment Monday, a city holiday, but has said she would appeal the case if she lost in court.  

The Police Review Commission will discuss the decision at its regular meeting on Wednesday 7 p.m., South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis.