Police misconduct is being ignored as a community-wide problem in Berkeley.
The echoing canyons of empty storefronts blamed on the presence of homeless people and panhandlers probably has more to do with real estate brokers' refusal to lower rental rates than panhandling, but Berkeley streets have another issue which is a serious, even dangerous problem for poor people and shoppers alike– police misconduct.
Try to imagine coming across the bay to visit friends with your family and being suddenly tackled, torn from your family's side, and forced to spend the night in a psychiatric facility without charge or explanation. Would you ever come back to visit?
Hila Sulme and her son, both of San Francisco, visited friends one Sunday in Berkeley then stopped by the downtown library before walking back to their car on Center Street. It was November 18, 2012, around 6:00 pm.
They were on Center near the game store when Berkeley bike officer Eric Keen zoomed around the corner and grabbed Ms. Sulme's son, taking him to the ground and handcuffing him. Another Berkeley police officer, a woman named Cole, was present as well, according to Ms. Sulme. A man who claimed to have reported a crime stood nearby watching as Ms. Sulme's son was handcuffed on the public sidewalk.
Neither Ms. Sulme nor her son had any idea what was going on. They had witnessed no crime or incident during their day, and had never had any encounter with either police officer before.
Ms. Sulme asked the young man who claimed to have reported them to the police to step back and give them some privacy, and Officer Keen objected, stating “he has the right to stand here.”
Ms. Sulme said that she was the mother of the young man being arrested. Officer Keen asked how old her son was, and when she told him that he was eighteen, responded that she then had no rights, and needed to get a power of attorney. Ms. Sulme described trying her best to inform the police officers that her son had unique medical issues and that they needed to listen to her regarding his condition, but she was dismissed by both officers, who suggested that an ambulance would be called and the emergency medical technicians would evaluate her son.
Officer Cole made a strange comment accusing Ms. Sulme of being sarcastic as she tried to explain the complex medical circumstances facing her son, circumstances which she, as his mother, as a nurse, and as someone with training in special education was in a position to clarify. She denied that she was being sarcastic, and when the officers continued to resist allowing her to tell them anything about her son's medical issues, commented that she felt they were both being unprofessional and unethical. Neither officer had any interest in what she had to say and claimed they had no obligation to listen to her.
According to Ms. Sulme, her son was now seated on the sidewalk against the game store wall, and the officers forced a Starbucks cup into his handcuffed hands behind his back, which she could only presume was an effort to take his fingerprints. It had become clear at this point that the officers were responding to a report on the vandalism of a car somewhere near the library on Allston Way and assumed that her son, who had never left her side, was responsible.
Ms. Sulme's son had no cuts or glass anywhere on his body which might link him to any car vandalism when the ambulance took him away, but after spending the night sleeping on the floor of John George psychiatric facility in Oakland he had a bruise on his arm from being hit by one of the patients. Ms. Sulme said she got through to a physician at the facility who was baffled that her son had been sent there in the first place, commenting that not only did the psychiatric placement make no sense, commenting also that the setting was dangerous for her son because of his medical issues.
Which is exactly what Ms. Sulme had been trying to tell Officer Eric Keen and Officer Heather Cole, the bike officers so eager to have her son swept off the street into an ambulance and out of sight. Neither she nor her son have any idea whether or not he will be charged with a crime. All she was given as her son was taken away was a case number.
Both Ms. Sulme and her son remain baffled by their mistreatment. They've received no citation or charges of any crime at the time of this writing, nor have they received any apology or explanation from the police officers or the department regarding the bizarre events of that day.
Please consider, the next time you see someone surrounded by police on the streets on Berkeley, simply standing by as a witness. The ten minutes you spend observing might end up being of crucial assistance to an innocent person. It also might clarify at least one reason why many people avoid coming for a visit. # # #
Carol Denney is a community activist, musician, and has worked on police accountability issues for years.