BERKELEY -- The city has had civilian review of its police since 1973.
But on May 1, the city manager halted all hearings into alleged police misconduct, citing the disclosure of confidential Police Review Commission findings leaked to UC Berkeley's Daily Californian newspaper.
"This breach of confidentiality is not only outrageous, it is a crime," Berkeley Police Association attorney Harry Stern wrote to the city manager May 1, when it came to light that the newspaper would soon publish leaked information from a closed-door hearing on alleged police misconduct in the February 2013 in-custody death of Kayla Moore, an African American transgender woman with a history of mental illness.
Stern called for action to "suspend all pending PRC investigations until the source of the leak is found."
City Manager Christine Daniel reacted to the pending disclosure -- the Daily Cal had informed Daniel of the leak when it contacted her asking for comment -- by suspending the city requirement for police officer attendance at hearings.
"Until the city has had an adequate opportunity to ensure that the required confidentiality will be maintained, I will not direct officers to participate," Daniel wrote to the City Council on May 1.
Attorney Jim Chanin, who helped write the law establishing the PRC through an initiative passed by voters, and who served as PRC commissioner, also said the breach of confidentiality is wrong.
However, he said that should not disrupt civilian oversight of the police.
"To punish the voters who passed the PRC (ordinance), by prohibiting police officers from testifying in front of the PRC because of what one person may have done, one time, is not only unprecedented and morally wrong, but it thwarts the will of the voters who voted for the PRC," Chanin said.
The police misconduct allegations that were the subject of leaked information revolved around a Feb. 2013 incident that began with a call to police from Moore's roommate, saying she needed a 72-hour psychiatric hold. Struggling to place Moore in handcuffs and leg restraints, police straddled the 347-pound woman face down on a mattress. Moore stopped breathing during the struggle.
The coroner attributed her death to drug intoxication, obesity and an enlarged heart.
The May 7 Daily Cal article by Executive News Editor Kimberly Veklerov, written with the UC Berkeley journalism school investigative reporting program, revealed, among other confidential data, that the PRC found unanimously that an officer failed to constantly monitor Moore's vital signs while restrained face down, as required by Berkeley police regulations.
PRC hearings were held in an open format until 2006. But a California Supreme Court decision and a Berkeley Police Association lawsuit against the city resulted in PRC investigations, hearings and findings going behind closed doors.
It's not clear when PRC hearings will resume.
The city has taken steps toward that end.
It has investigated all staff with access to PRC records, and "concluded that no staff member released the records," Daniel wrote in a May 9 memo to the PRC.
Daniel further asked the commission to reaffirm its commitment to confidentiality, which it did at its March 14 meeting.
These steps are good, BPA attorney Stern said in a phone interview. But he noted that they stop short of identifying the individual, which he believes is a commissioner, who leaked the information.
While Police Review Commission Officer Katherine Lee said the city manager doesn't have the authority to investigate commissioners, Stern contends the city can "have an outside party do that."
Asked if the city would hire an outside investigator, city spokesman Matthai Chakko responded in an email that "We will be working with the PRC and the BPA on the next steps."
In his letter to the city manager, Stern warned that "the release of a California peace officer's personnel records is a criminal offense" and that "the PRC is subject to civil liability for this invasion of privacy and defamation."
Asked whether that indicated a lawsuit is in the offing, Stern underscored his respect for the civilian review process and said he would prefer not to resolve the issue in court.
"That would be the last resort," he said.