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The problem with traffic enforcement...

While traffic enforcement can save lives, Berkeley Copwatch is concerned about the ways that traffic enforcement creates an opportunity for police misconduct and racial profiling.


In 2017, Berkeley Copwatch counted six DUI checkpoints.


Three in West Berkeley:

  • January 13: University & Bonar

  • September 2: University & Bonar

  • October 27: San Pablo & Cedar


And three in South Berkeley:

  • March 17: Telegraph & Stuart

  • June 23: Alcatraz & Adeline

  • December 21: Alcatraz & Adeline


To our knowledge, the checkpoints were all located in historically black and currently gentrifying neighborhoods. We wonder why these neighborhoods are prioritized over those near the university, or near the bars in the downtown area.


Targeting these neighborhoods fits into a racist trend of displacement in Berkeley. While in 1970, Black people made up 23.5% of the city's population, according to the US Census, that number has dwindled to less than 8% of the city's population, according to the 2015 Adeline Corridor Project "Existing Conditions Report." This racist displacement has been most stark in the West and South Berkeley neighborhoods. The Daily Cal reported in 2015 that the South Berkeley Adeline Corridor neighborhood saw a 50% decline in the Black population from 1990 to 2010.


Gentrification is a result of a number of social pressures, including racist policing practices and overpolicing of POC neighborhoods. Here in Berkeley, Black people are disproportionately policed. While Black people amount to less than 8% of the total population, 33% of all people stopped by Berkeley police during traffic stops are Black, according to a Police Strategies report in 2017. This number is up from 30.5% in 2015. In proportion to their population sizes, Black people are stopped six times more often than white people.


Policing Strategies' report also shows:


  • Most Black people stopped by police (68.9%) and most Latinos (62.1%) were released without any charges, while only 52.4% of White civilians were released without charges. (The fact that people of color are being stopped at higher rates and released without charges indicates that people of color are being stopped without a firm legal basis.)


  • 24.3% of the Black people who were stopped were subjected to a search, far more than white people, who were searched 10.2% of the time—a racial disparity of more than two to one.


Chief Greenwood's attempts at concealing and delaying the Center for Policing Equity's report analyzing Berkeley traffic stop data this year, combined with statements he has made indicating that the BPD will not commit to any policies or practices that seek to reduce biased policing, confirms the problem already known to all of the people of color who live in, work in or visit Berkeley.


We have seen how racism can play out at traffic stops and DUI checkpoints. We have also seen how this kind of policing gives officers the opportunity for misconduct.


During traffic stops, individual officers have near total discretion in how the stop proceeds. Reasonable suspicion is vague here: officers can claim to "smell" alcohol or marijuana, or see reckless driving - claims that are difficult to disprove. Further, when the stop becomes a DUI investigation, it is unclear how officers choose which tests to put the person who was stopped through. Traffic stops can easily become searches and confiscations.


During an incident a copwatcher witnessed in Fall 2017, officers stopped a Black man under suspicion that he was driving under the influence. They put him through a range of tests, including standing on one leg—even after the man said that he had a knee problem. At one point, there were six officers on scene, even though it was only a traffic stop and the man was not posing a threat in any way. After the man completed all of the tests, the officer said that there was yet another test. The man replied that the officer had already said he completed all the tests. The officer insisted that there was one more test: Would he consent to a breathalyzer? The officer said it was completely optional; he could choose to take it or not. Under the impression that the test was optional, the man refused. However, when he refused, the officer arrested him. In this case, the choice was apparently between the breathalyzer and arrest. Fortunately, a friend came to get his vehicle, but we have witnessed other stops where the vehicle has been towed. Traffic stops can be hugely detrimental to poor people, whether they must miss work because of an arrest or have to pay a ticket or pay to retrieve a vehicle.


Read the study "Driving While Black: Racial Profiling and Traffic Stops" for background information on this phenomenon.

The problem with checkpoints...


Berkeley Copwatch is especially concerned about DUI checkpoints. Checkpoints create a state of exception in which police can pull over anyone who passes through the checkpoint without having reasonable suspicion. Checkpoints cause traffic and are not that effective a tool in DUI policing: they have been shown to yield a lot of minor citations (which means the department will meet quotas and get funding), but relatively few DUI arrests.

Additionally, Berkeley Copwatch is concerned about how BPD records and keeps data during DUI checkpoints. While they might track how many vehicles are towed, it is not clear that they keep a record of how many vehicles passed through the checkpoint, or even the race/ethnicity of those stopped vs. those waved through.


Here in Berkeley, we have seen an increase in DUI stops and checkpoints in recent years, and are aware of a few reasons why this might be. DUI policing seems to be lucrative. Grant monies can be sought. CA Office of Traffic Safety grants are encouraging this kind of policing. Officers are paid overtime at late night DUI checkpoints. Moreover, it seems like there is a dynamic where traffic citations result in tickets, vehicle tows and vehicle storage fees, which creates an incentive for cities to push for more traffic policing so they can collect these fees.

Berkeley Copwatch would urge BPD to take care when implementing programs funded by the state or federally. The Berkeley community has unique priorities and a long history of public participation in crafting our civic sphere. We will not accept racist policing policies in our city, wherever they may come from.

Read "Why DUI Checkpoints are a Bad Idea" for more information.

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