Dropping the Police Accountability Ball and the Pre-trial Scarlet Letter

Carol Denney
Wednesday August 22, 2018 - 11:24:00 AM

bBerkeley Police arrested twenty demonstrators at the most recent August, 2018 "alt-right" rally and posted their photographs and personal information on the Police Department's Twitter account. The information was picked up by other publications, including Fox News and international outlets, and caused a stir as the new "scarlet letter" of creative police abuse. 

Publicizing the personal information of arrestees is not routine, and was justified by Berkeley's police spokesperson Byron White, quoted in England's "The Guardian", as saying "People are coming from out of town and bringing weapons and are committed to violence … We don’t want people to be able to do that with anonymity.” The Guardian's coverage, in contrast, stated that all but one arrestee was from the Bay Area, and that only one of the arrestees was accused of a violent crime. 

The most appalling point, if White's quotation is accurate, is the willingness of the Berkeley police force to exert punishment and public humiliation on people who have yet to be convicted of any crime, violent or otherwise. Mayor Jesse Arreguin has stated that he was "not involved" in the decision, much like his helpless hand-wringing over the police sweeps of homeless people taking place only yards away from his "human peace sign" event shortly after his inauguration. 

But Mayor Arreguin played an obvious role in quietly dropping the ball this week on the best hope for police accountability improvements in decades. By not calling a special meeting of the city council, the community-side effort stalls past various requirements to become a ballot measure this fall despite clear and consistent calls for change in the light of, among other issues, clear racial disparities in policing according to the police department's own records. The police union appears to be firmly in charge of crafting its own policy and calling its own shots. 

Neither of these issues should be a difficult decision for the mayor or the Berkeley City Council. The judge in the Manafort case only days ago declined to release the names of the jury on the grounds of threats received by the judge himself. The practice of internet-shaming arrestees at a protest, especially in the light of the Police Department's class and race-based disparities, should be quickly prohibited. The strengthening of police accountability measures will clearly take longer, but the disappearance of even the possibility of a council vote on the issue looks more like caving to police pressure than democracy. 

The practice of publicly shaming arrestees is especially ironic in the light of the decades-old effort to hide police officers' own records from the public. The latest iteration of Nancy Skinner's effort to get some accountability measures passed this session is, at this moment, hanging by a watered-down thread. 

It is the courts, not the police, who are tasked with arranging for an individual's punishment - after a conviction. The police representatives crowing over this victory for police power and autonomy should consider that they just made any possibility of cooperation between the police and the community much, much harder.