After nine hours of debate in a virtual meeting, the City Council approved a plan by Mayor Jesse Arreguin that will create a transportation department in charge of planning and enforcing parking and traffic violations. The plan will also form a “new” Berkeley Police Department for responding to calls that don't involve mentally ill or homeless people.
Berkeley, which is near San Francisco, has an estimated population of 121,000 people.
A steering committee has been put in place to plan and execute the move and identify other elements of policing that can be accomplished by alternative programs instead. It's not surprising that left-leaning Berkeley is the first city to pull its police department’s authority over traffic since the death of George Floyd while in police custody.
The police department’s budget has already been slashed by 12 percent since then, which equates to $9.2 million. The new motion includes a proposal that will slash it by a further 50 percent.
Critics are warning that the move is ill-advised and will place those who take over traffic enforcement duties in danger.
Los Angeles Police Protective League Director Mark Cronin said that what the city is doing is “nuts.” He added: “I think it’s a big social experiment. I think it’s going to fail and it’s not going to take long for, unfortunately, traffic collisions, fatalities to increase exponentially.”
Meanwhile, former New York City Police Department captain Frank Merenda, who now works as an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Marist College, said that traffic stops are highly unpredictable and one of the most dangerous duties carried out by law enforcement. He added that conducting these stops safely and effectively requires months of police training both in the academy and outside of it.
Perhaps the most damning criticism, however, came from Bowling Green State University Criminal Justice Professor Philip Stinson, who called it an “overly simplistic plan that could have deadly consequences for unarmed traffic enforcement officers.”
Arreguin has said that the change will not take place overnight and requires complicated logistics to sort out. However, he believes that minorities in his city feel like police are targeting them and that's something he'd like to change.
The police unions for San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles have issued statements opposing Berkeley's plan, which was first introduced by Democrat City Councilman Rigel Robinson.
A similar proposal was made by safety advocates in New York City. However, Mayor Bill de Blasio has defended the NYPD's role and stated that the police department is “essential to Vision Zero,” a plan to reduce the city’s traffic deaths to zero by the year 2024.
He told reporters: “I don’t doubt for a moment the commitment of the NYPD and I just see these things differently than some of the advocates do. Traffic enforcement, I think, does belong in the NYPD.”
It’s not quite clear how the city expects these unarmed workers to handle traffic stops involving people who are carrying weapons. It will be interesting to see how many individuals are willing to apply for a role that will regularly put them in deadly situations without an effective way to defend themselves. In fact, it’s a move that could put all those who live in or pass through Berkeley in danger as traffic collisions rise thanks to a lack of effective enforcement.
Sources for this article include: