A Family’s Disturbing Encounter with Berkeley Police

Imagine coming to visit friends in Berkeley and being tackled, torn from your family’s side, and forced to spend the night in a psychiatric ward without charge or explanation. Would you ever come back to visit? That’s what happened to Hila Sulme and her son one Sunday recently in Berkeley.

by Carol Denney


Some of Berkeley’s commercial districts are echoing canyons of empty storefronts. Real estate companies boast of the town’s amenities, but blame the presence of homeless people and panhandlers for the empty commercial spaces which burden the town year after year. Yet, their own refusal to lower rental rates probably plays the primary role in discouraging new commercial tenants.

The Berkeley City Council currently has three members who opposed Measure S, the anti-sitting law targeting the poor which failed to get popular support at the polls, but none of Berkeley’s councilmembers have spoken out yet about an issue making Berkeley’s commercial districts discouraging and even dangerous for everybody — poor people and shoppers alike — police misconduct.

Police misconduct is being ignored as a community-wide problem in Berkeley.

The police are currently misusing a decades-old law — an ordinance originally designed to keep storeowners’ merchandise from cluttering the sidewalk — against pedestrians themselves who set down a backpack or bag of belongings.

This misuse of Section 14.48.020 is in complete violation of the law’s intent and its exemption for personal belongings. Discrimination appears to be playing a role in the law’s misuse, and appears to be playing a role in additional incidents, such as the following story.

Try to imagine coming across the Bay with your family to visit friends in Berkeley 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 residents 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 Nov. 18, 2012, around 6:00 p.m.

They were on Center Street 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, Heather Cole, was present as well. 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, but 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 18, Keen responded that she then had no rights, and needed to get a power of attorney.

Ms. Sulme tried 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 Heather Cole then 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.

It was shocking for Hila Sulme to watch as the Berkeley police slammed her son down and handcuffed him, ignoring her pleas to be careful due to her son’s medical condition. Art by Christa Occhiogrosso


Ms. Sulme 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, said 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.

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 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 Pavilion in San Leandro, he had a bruise on his arm from being hit by one of the patients.

Ms. Sulme 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, and also adding 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 Keen and Officer 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.

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.

Officer Jennifer Coats, the Berkeley Police Department’s public information officer, responded to my request for an official explanation by claiming that Ms. Sulme’s son was never taken to the ground, and that an eyewitness had identified him as having broken a car window.

She also stated that a mobile crisis team had been called and had arranged for psychiatric observation. She had no comment on the officers’ having forced a Starbucks cup into the handcuffed hands of Ms. Sulme’s son.

The next time you see someone surrounded by police on the streets of Berkeley, please consider simply standing by as a witness. The 10 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 to this city for a visit.

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