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Council Reforms Police Agreements

POLL: How would you vote on renewing police agreements with intelligence-gathering agencies?

The Berkeley City Council Tuesday revised agreements between its police department and state and federal intelligence-gathering agencies, coming down strongly on the side of civil liberties.

Police Chief Michael Meehan said the department and the city's police review commission had worked diligently over the course of several meetings to craft the revisions, working to strike a balance between safety and civil liberties.

"Much common ground has been found," he said.

In February, council members approved year-long pacts with the Nor-Cal Regional Intelligence Center, the Urban Area Security Initiative, immigration authorities and the UC Police Department. But they carved out several exceptions to safeguard free speech and privacy rights.

Several speakers and Councilman Kriss Worthington urged the council to scrap the agreements entirely, saying the fears stoked by 9/11 have given way to unchecked domestic surveillance.

In particular, many objected to the Nor-Cal center's use of "suspicious activity reports" on individuals.

"We have to look at this in context," Worthington said. "In the real world we know our government has done illegal things. We need to keep that in mind when people ask questions. That (fear) is not unfounded."

For the bulk of the session, council members and representatives from the intelligence center, the ACLU, the Berkeley Police Review Commission and Berkeley Police wrestled over what constitutes suspicious activity.

ACLU lawyer Julia Harumi Mass rejected an example provided by Meehan of an individual who responded to a welfare check by blasting officers with a diatribe about the government. Meehan said the resident used language common to Sovereign Nation, a violent organization that counted one of the Oklahoma City bombers as a member.

But Mass said because the man was not linked to or suspected of any criminal activity, his diatribe was protected free speech as defined by the First Amendment.

Indefinite standards can lead to abuses, Mass said, citing the case of a 21-year-old Penn State student who was arrested in his back yard for photographing a police action in his neighborhood.

Seeking to assuage concerns, the intelligence center's Michael Sena said only 15 percent of reports submitted by police and the public actually qualify as valid suspicious activity reports.

The center based its standards on tens of thousands of actual terror events, he said. They include such things as stealing government uniforms, making threats, launching cyber attacks, taking photographs of facilities or infrastructure "in a way that would arouse suspicion," and intense questioning of employees at sensitive sites about security systems or the timing of shift changes.

"We only focused on Occupy as possible victims of other groups that might take advantage of them," he said.

Its relationship with the intelligence center has netted hundreds of thousands of dollars in fire-fighting, hazmat, and bomb-detection equipment -- money the police department would lose if it severed ties, Meehan said.

With the exception of Worthington, the council voted to rewrite the agreement to adhere to state and federal constitutional guidelines and meet stricter review requirements.

The council voted unanimously to deny requests from the federal Immigration and Custom Enforcement to detain jailed persons after criminal charges have been resolved so they can be deported. The city will adopt guidelines established by Santa Clara County, which has severed its collaboration with ICE.

Other revisions:

  • The council must review requests for UASI grants;
  • The city will adopt the California Attorney General's standards that define nonviolent civil disobedience;
  • Officers from other departments must observe Berkeley's codes of conduct when providing mutual aid in the city;
  • Meehan will encourage UC Berkeley Police to honor the city's policies on vehicle towing when in areas where Berkeley police have jurisdiction.

The council will take up the matter of an armored tank to be shared by Albany, Berkeley and UC Berkeley police department Tuesday, June 26. The tank has no offensive capabilities, Meehan said.

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