Court Keeps Police Hearings Private

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A state appellate court upheld a ruling Tuesday that says the Berkeley Police Review Commission must hold its meetings behind closed doors.

Previously, the commission had held their meetings open to the public, which some said made the process more transparent. But in 2002, the police officers union sued, seeking to protect the privacy of police officers who were being investigated by the commission.

The Alameda County Superior Court ruled in 2006 that commission hearings and records must be closed to protect the privacy of department employees.

The city of Berkeley appealed that decision, but a three-judge panel ruled Tuesday that the lower court's decision was correct.

"This is the biggest and most drastic change to the process," said William White, the commission's chair.

According to city spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, the city has yet to decide if it will appeal the court's recent decision to the California Supreme Court.

Others said the appellate court made the proper decision.

"I absolutely think the court of appeal made the correct decision based on well-established law," said Harry Stern, a lawyer who represents the Berkeley Police Association.

The review commission, founded in 1973 after voters approved its formation through a ballot initiative, has openly reviewed civilian complaints concerning police misconduct for more than 30 years.

Both the commission and the Berkeley Police Department's internal department of affairs will be independently monitoring police activities.

Commission members still have the power to investigate claims and relate findings to both the police department and the Berkeley City Council. However, they do not have authority to discipline members of the department.

Opponents of the ruling say that now, after the court ruling, no outsider can observe the process and serve as an outside check of police and commission activity.

A closed meeting is contrary to the idea of external review, said Alan Schlosser, legal director of the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union.

"The court ignored the interests of the public and having a transparent process," Schlosser said. "Proceedings in Guantanamo Bay are now more open than in Berkeley."

But opponents of open commission hearings said the decisions of the courts reaffirmed established law.

"The only thing the (Berkeley Police) Association has ever asked of the city is that they comply with the law," said Alison Wilkinson, a lawyer who represented the association.

Berkeley's commission was the first in the state, White said.

"(The ruling) brings a shadow over the process," he said. "The city of Berkeley will suffer from this."

Yet White, an 11-year veteran of the commission, also said that the decision includes some positive changes.

The closed meetings allow more information to be shared with the commission. Instead of only reviewing cases that were brought directly to the commission, its members will now also have access to compliance records.

City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said that although he is disappointed with the ruling, there will still be sufficient oversight of the department.

Wilkinson said she too thought the oversight system would still work.

"Accountability happens whether it is behind closed doors or in an open commission," she said.


Contact Leslie Toy at [email protected]

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