If a Berkeley proposal inspired by the country’s racial justice movement goes through, police officers won’t be pulling people over for speeding, blowing through red lights or flipping U-turns in the middle of Telegraph Avenue.
Don’t get too excited. Traffic enforcement isn’t going away — it just wouldn’t be the job of armed officers.
The first-of-its-kind proposal, due for a City Council vote Tuesday, is a response to the reckoning over brutality and racial bias in law enforcement that followed the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and has put pressure on leaders to rethink their approach to public safety.
The proposal, while novel and potentially complex, has garnered some praise from racial justice advocates and transportation planners, and officials in Los Angeles and New York City have hinted at following Berkeley’s lead.
“Within a day, an L.A. City Council member was messaging me on Twitter about it,” said Berkeley Councilman Rigel Robinson, who introduced the proposal on June 29. “As far as we know, something like this hasn’t been meaningfully attempted before.”
The policy, dubbed BerkDOT, aims to fundamentally change the approach to minor traffic violations that disproportionately impact Black and brown people by creating a new Berkeley Department of Transportation, which would be staffed with unarmed civil servants. The city’s current transportation commission falls under the Public Works department, while traffic and parking enforcement rests with the investigations bureau of the police force.
Berkeley’s new department would unite planning and enforcement under the common goal of creating safer streets.
“We don’t have all of the answers yet,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguin, who co-sponsored the measure. “But somebody has to break ground on this. And Berkeley is committed that this is a conversation we need to explore.”
Berkeley police declined to comment on the proposal, saying “the department does not comment on city legislation.”
Traffic enforcement comprises 52% of interactions that Americans have with the police, and Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to be stopped and searched, according to data from the Stanford Open Policing Project. As the tragic deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota, Sandra Bland in Texas, and Maurice Gordon in New Jersey illustrate, traffic stops can too often turn deadly for Black men and women.
Berkeley’s Police Department hasn’t had a police shooting since 2012 but, like many cities, its traffic stop data reflects racial disparity. A 2018 Center for Policing Equity report found that Black drivers in Berkeley were four times more likely than white drivers to be searched after a stop, and Hispanic drivers were three times more likely to be searched.
“Berkeley appears to be doing better than most agencies, but it has work to do,” said UC Berkeley Professor Jack Glaser, who co-authored the 2018 report and recently advised San Francisco’s Police Department in its decision to end the release of mug shots as part of an effort to stop perpetuating racial stereotypes.
Departments of transportation are common to large cities like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and many of these agencies have unarmed community resource officers, who issue citations or impound vehicles. But it’s uncommon for a city the size of Berkeley, which has a population of about 120,000, to create a standalone transportation department.
Sgt. Ray Kelly, an Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said Berkeley’s idea of creating an entirely new transportation department seems costly and counter-intuitive for a city of its size.
“From a management perspective and budget perspective, it doesn’t make sense unless you’re a major metropolitan city,” he said. “Why create more bureaucracy when traffic can be done very professionally, with a slight learning curve, with city police departments?”
If passed, the BerkDOT measure will be funded in part by the $9.2 million the council cut from the Police Department’s budget on July 1. Arreguin said the move will bring long-term cost savings to a city hampered with police overtime and pension costs.
If the measure is approved Tuesday, the City Council will immediately enter a community engagement process to begin planning the new department, which officials hope to fully transition to in the next three years.
“The more we move from police departments to non-sworn positions, it’s probably cheaper,” Arreguin said. “The police budget is currently 44% of our general fund. That’s not sustainable for our city.”
Berkeley isn’t the first city to apply a racial justice lens to how it views transportation.
In 2015, Oakland formed a new Department of Transportation, OakDOT, with a designated Racial Justice Team. OakDOT has introduced measures like targeting historically underserved areas for funding and investment, and creating low-income ride-share pricing programs. The department also works closely with the Oakland Police Department, which last year dramatically cut back on traffic enforcement to curb racial bias.
However, Berkeley would be the first city in the nation to entirely separate traffic enforcement from policing.
Sgt. Kelly said he worries about the distance that could be created between civilian officials and the Police Department in situations with imminent danger. When it comes to reckless driving, DUIs or other circumstances that put civilians at risk, he said, cities need trained police officers who can respond quickly.
“When you create separate departments, you risk making it harder for people to talk to each other,” Kelly said. “I’d ask first about the communication systems in place, the training for when and how to work together to keep people safe.”
Berkeley Councilman Ben Bartlett said that his own George Floyd Community Safety Act, also being considered by the council Tuesday, will help bridge that divide. The measure proposes reallocating most police work to unarmed crisis responders, who can then escalate violent situations and criminal investigations to the Police Department.
“If there’s a reckless driver, that’s when police get called in to address that threat,” Bartlett said. “Right now most interactions with the police remain broken tail lights or having the wrong color sticker. By removing the police from day-to-day street activity, we allow them to focus on addressing solving crimes.”
Tasking civilians with traffic enforcement may curb the risk of violence, but it won’t eliminate the potential for racial bias in their work. Bartlett said this is why BerkDOT will need a traffic enforcement system that issues speeding tickets and parking citations “devoid of discretion.”
The details on how that will work still aren’t clear.
“That might mean complete automation of ticketing,” Bartlett said. “People have different ideas.”
Automated speed enforcement is not currently legal in California.
If the BerkDOT measure passes, the city will move into several months of community engagement, bringing in perspectives from residents, transportation planners, fair policing experts and a legal research team from ChangeLab Solutions. The city would also use data from a recently approved independent analysis of police calls to help inform a variety of new public safety measures.
Finally, the city would work with the Public Works Department and the Police Department to help plan and transition operations to the new agency.
“Step one is stating our policy intentions,” said Councilwoman Lori Droste, who co-sponsored the proposal. “Clearly, there are a lot of details that we need to work out. We aren’t pretending otherwise.”