‘Public Safety’ Section Slipped in without Public Process
Giuliani-style Tactics Urged for Minor Offenses
Are the police accountable to no one? It often seems that way. But now, according to the newly released Draft Southside Plan, that seems to be official City of Berkeley and University of California policy.
The Draft Southside Plan was unveiled January 18, including a “Public Safety” section that has never before been made public and which completely sidestepped a lengthy public input and review process which formulated the four other main elements of the plan.
The Draft Plan goes to great lengths to tout it’s extensive 1 1/2 year history of community input and discussion of four of the five elements of the plan–land use and housing, transportation and parking, economic development, and community character–which featured the release of issue papers on each subject as early as June, 1998 and separate public workshops on each of the four topics at the end of ‘98.
However, when one turns to the newly released public safety section of the plan, all mention of public participation suddenly vanishes, and we learn in the opening paragraphs that “public policy about crime prevention is established by the City of Berkeley and UC Police Departments.” In other words, the police are in charge of themselves.
According to the city’s planning department, the reason the section appeared so late in the process is because there was a demand for it during the initial period of public input made, most notably, by the Telegraph Area Association, a front group for, area merchants and other special interests.
Apparently public officials in the City and University don’t want the public to be able to even discuss their policing policies, policies which, in Southside, amount to a racial, class, and lifestyle profiling of who the authorities and police deem undesirable elements.
Police target people who’s appearance detracts from the turning of the area into a yuppie shopping zone in which merchants can maximize their profits and the University can ensure a sterile playground in which to breed their next generation of obedient students without fear of them being tainted by the 60’s past, and without any first-hand knowledge of the reality of poverty on the streets of America.
Public Safety for Who?
The main thrust of the public safety section is (surprise, surprise) an embrace of the new higher level of policing that the area has undergone for the last year and a half, and a call for more of the same. However, when you get down to the nuts and bolts of the plan, you find it far more concerned with what it calls the “perception of public safety,” than it is with actual public safety. The definition of public safety it focuses on is primarily on property safety with a complete overemphasis on enforcement of petty ‘quality of life’ crimes, or, as they’re referred to in the plan, “neighborhood health crimes”–in other words, enforcing a kind of Giuliani-ism.
These two aspects of the plan are not unrelated. For when it talks about improving the perception of public safety, what it really means is driving people away from the area who appear to be dangerous, who ‘fit the description’–non-white people, poor people, homeless people, punks, freaks, the mentally ill, etc. The emphasis on enforcing “neighborhood health crimes” (vandalism, liquor law violations, public drunkenness, disturbances of the peace, drug and weapons offenses, and trespassing) then serves as the convenient rationale for targeting those select groupings of people.
The plan even admits that crimes against people, including homicide, rape and aggravated assault are a low percentage of total major crimes in Southside. The so called “public safety” element then, is misnamed, and is really more of a blue-print for the police’s forced relocation program of certain kinds of people out of the area. During the last year and a half, joint UC/City police patrols have increased dramatically with the City now spending roughly 20% of its police department’s total officer hours on Southside, an area comprising only 2.5% of the City’s total land area. We are over-policed.
The New Poor Laws
As Giuliani did in New York, supposedly liberal Berkeley is also spending vast amounts of resources on what amounts to petty harassment of people already down on their luck, those suffering most the ill effects of an inherently unequal and unfair social order.
For example, one major activity of police in Southside is giving $130 tickets to homeless people for drinking in public. If you’re homeless and don’t have a home to go to, how can you not be drinking in public? You are guilty because of your class. And where are you supposed to get the $130 to pay the fine? Many poor people are regularly arrested and spend time in jail because they are financially or mentally unable to cope with the painstakingly slow, demeaning, inhumane, and downright unjust processes of the criminal justice bureaucracy. The Southside Plan wants this to continue.
Another main activity of the police in Southside is busting people for dealing or possessing small amounts of drugs, most notably marijuana. The police in this so-called liberal city, and in Southside in particular, are fighting the War on Drugs to the hilt. The drug war itself is designed to weed and seed out a certain segment of the population and “house” them in all the newly constructed prisons. Furthermore, the Berkeley Police, on a daily basis, willfully violate an explicitly clear City ordinance instructing them not to enforce any marijuana laws.
It is obvious that the public officials and area special interests who’ve drafted the Southside Plan don’t want to give the people of Berkeley an opportunity to review these kinds of police practices. They know they would not get past public scrutiny, and the police would not get away with what they do. That is why the public safety section has been kept out of the public process.
Bad for Business
The public safety section of the plan refers far more often (six times) to the “perception of public safety” than it does to the reality of public safety. Since the main goal of the plan is to gentrify the area and attract more people with more money to come and spend it, it makes sense to be concerned with the perception of public safety.
In order to improve the perception of public safety, the unstated logic of the plan is then to rid the area of those who are perceived to be unsafe. As one can imagine, a such strategy opens the door to gross miscarriages of justice and human rights violations against people based on their appearance and superficial personal habits. This is exactly what the monied interests in the city want.
Follow the police around on Southside and see what kind of people they always stop, cite, and arrest. The University attempt last year to remove the free box in People’s Park was aimed at precisely this objective–removal from the area of people who hang out near the box because they are perceived to be dangerous–apparently for being black and/or homeless.
Who are the Criminals-Gangs in Blue
So the public safety section of the plan is grossly misnamed: public safety is the last thing it is concerned with. The first thing it is concerned with is, as stated above, with the perception of public safety. Next it is concerned with “quality of life crimes” and then property crimes (theft, etc.) which the plan admits is the most common major crime in the Southside area.
If you see quality of life crimes for what they are, petty harassment of certain people designed to lower their quality of life so they’ll leave the area, then these police practices are, in effect, the crime. A large part of what police do on a day to day basis is decrease the public safety of certain populations. The poor are, in effect, c
riminalized by the system.
The police are at best a public nuisance to the poor and often kidnap (through arrest) and rob (through citations that carry a fine, confiscation of personal property, and the levying of bails and bonds). Beatings (assault) usually take place out of public view, and then there is murder (he lunged at the officer and appeared to be grabbing for his gun.)
Don’t get me wrong, the process of public input for the plan as a whole is a sham. It was mostly drawn up by the big time social engineers at the UC Berkeley planning department and then rubber stamped by City bureaucrats. The architects of the plan solicit input from everyone, but when it comes to writing up the plan, for the most part they use only the input they like, that which comes from their friends and those with the same class interests and social agendas (business owners, homeowners, etc.).
The City devised this trick several years ago. It allows City bureaucrats to present a facade of democracy and public participation while really continuing the same old rule from above. This new process also has the added benefit of allowing wily PR staff to flush out their opponents arguments and then craft the language of their plans to deflect the anticipated critiques. That said, the public safety section of the plan didn’t even go through this phony public participation process.
The process isn’t phony, of course, for Southside’s “stakeholders”, as the plan refers to them. The stakeholders are groups who wield money and power and are listed in the plan as having special sway in the Southside plan decision-making process, above and beyond those of the measly general public.
Stakeholder groups in the Southside are groups like the merchants, who basically own the Berkeley Police in the Southside area, and use them as their private security firm to drive away people who stand as an obstacle to gentrification of the area. Another stakeholder is the University of California administration for whom the plan is a vehicle to help realize their long-term goal of expanding their influence in the Southside, as many of the plans key features provide.
Saying that the police themselves should determine police policy would be like giving the public works department complete control over transportation policy, or giving the U.S. military the power to go to war if and when it wanted to.
The police are public employees just like any other city employee. The policies that steer their work should be matter of public discussion and debate, and ultimately public jurisdiction, just as are the policies that chart the course of any other city department. What makes the police any different. Do we live in a police state, that there is no power greater than the power of the police? At least some members of the Berkeley Planning Department seem to think so.
But such is the nature and purpose of the police–to carry out the will of the monied interest in society, of the owners of capital, by patrolling and enforcing a social order that is favorable to their terms. In the same way that the U.S. military and government serve as functionaries of the big corporations, and collectively the owners of capital on a national stage, so do the police within the City of Berkeley serve to “protect and serve” the interests of local managers of capital, the local bourgeoisie. The most disenfranchised in society–the homeless, or propertyless–have little or no social power via the role of the police and thus are swept away, legislated out of existence, arrested, and put in cages. This is class war.