Berkeley settles police force lawsuit

The city of Berkeley has reached a settlement with protesters and journalists who sued the city over police use of force at Black Lives Matter protests in 2015.

In addition to a monetary settlement of $125,000 for seven of the plaintiffs, the city has agreed to reforms in its use of force policy, in particular requiring officers to document force during protests as well as making a commitment to a speedy rollout of body cameras, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

National Lawyers Guild attorney Rachel Lederman said:

“A striking problem in this case was that there was a complete absence of reports by the officers who used force and a number of plaintiffs were hit with batons in unlawful, basically completely random fashion, pursuant to an illegal informal policy they had to simply club people if they got too close.”

Attorney Jim Chanin, who has been litigating use of force cases for decades, said he was shocked by how far behind Berkeley’s use of force policy was compared to other Bay Area departments.

He said in general written reports of force were rarely required unless the officer used a gun or a baton in the interaction and in the case of protests, officers weren’t required to write a report at all.

There were no reports after the Dec. 6, 2014, protest except for one completed months later and released to the public that extensively documented actions by protesters but did not individually document actions by officers, Chanin said.

The protest was one of many demonstrations that swept the country following decisions not to charge police officers in killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York.

The demonstrations were some of the largest in Berkeley in decades and led to tense clashes between protesters and police. Officers used clubs and tear gas on the crowds and said that they were under attack by protesters throwing rocks, bottles, and other objects.

However, police later acknowledged that peaceful protesters and journalists were clubbed as the crowd approached the police building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, but said that the protesters they hit were warned to move.

Sam Wolson, a freelance photographer on assignment with the San Francisco Chronicle, said he was hit in the back of the head as he knelt to take a photo. Wolson said in a statement:

“I’m glad the Berkeley Police have helped resolve this case. … If journalists are restricted by force from holding all parties accountable, then the whole system breaks down. This is even more important today, as we look to the next four years.”

Shortly after the protests, the Berkeley City Council ordered a moratorium on police use of tear gas, projectiles and over-the-shoulder baton strikes during protests pending the outcome of an investigation into the protests. The City Council has also been working for years on implementing a body worn camera policy, though no Berkeley officer has been equipped with one yet.

Lederman said she is hopeful that the police will change and follow its policy and said that as part of the settlement the department has committed to full implementation of body-worn cameras:

“We’re hoping the City Council will take it a step further by prohibiting tear gas and less-lethal munitions.”

The lawsuit had also included the city of Hayward as a defendant for providing mutual aid and using less-lethal munitions during the demonstration. Hayward does equip its officers with body cameras, though the NLG sued the city for charging over $3,000 in fees to turn over the footage.

A judge ruled those fees were excessive last year but that decision is under appeal, Lederman said.

Hayward settled the excessive force lawsuit against the protesters for an undisclosed amount, Lederman said.

The Berkeley City Council still needs to approve the settlement and are expected to take it up at their Feb. 14 meeting, according to court records.