Berkeley, CA – A Berkeley city councilman got caught trying to use his position to get out of a red light ticket in July, when he told the officer he was in the process of voting on her pay raise.
Berkeleyside made a public records request and obtained the audio of the Berkeley City Councilman Ben Bartlett’s interaction with Berkeley Police Officer Stephanie Cole, who stopped him at about 12:10 p.m. on July 19 after she saw him run a red light.
Berkeley officers do not wear bodycams, but Berkeley City Spokesman Mathhai Chakko said it was “common practice” for officers to make audio recordings of their interactions with the public.
“I’m so sorry. I know I was late - I’m Ben Bartlett, city councilperson,” the man in the white BMW introduced himself on the audio. “There’s a meeting right now. Kriss Worthington is retiring and I was rushing to get there.”
Officer Cole, who sounded utterly nonplussed by the councilman’s revelation, asked Bartlett for his driver’s license.
“I appreciate your work here,” Bartlett told the officer. Then a minute later he told her he must have left his driver’s license at home in his rush to get out the door for the retirement shindig.
So she asked for his registration and insurance, but he couldn’t find that either, the audio of Officer Cole’s interaction with the city councilman revealed.
Bartlett told Officer Cole that he planned to go right back home after the ceremony and asked if he could come down to the station later on.
“So far you haven’t been able to produce any documentation – this is an invoice for something…” the officer replied, as she looked at receipt he had handed her.
“Can I come to the station and do this later?” he asked again.
“No, no. I understand you are who you are, but we still have a…” the officer began.
“Well, we’re voting on your contract right now,” Bartlett informed her in the audio recording.
“I took a big stand to get you a raise. I took that stand against my district and what they yell at me about,” he told her, sounding very put out.
At the time of the traffic stop, the police union had been negotiating the police contract with the city for more than a year, Berkeleyside reported. The discussions were supposed to have been confidential.
Officials had a closed session to negotiate just three days prior to the traffic stop, on July 16. The city council finally approved the police contract on July 31.
Officer Cole’s tone and demeanor never changed during her entire interaction with Bartlett. She remained polite and professional throughout the recorded exchange, even when he made implied threats about the police contract.
“So it’s going to take a little bit longer to verify your driver’s license is valid because you don’t have it on you. If you happen to find your registration or proof of insurance, I’d like to see that,” the officer said.
Then she went back to her vehicle to give Bartlett’s info to the dispatcher to run through the computer so she could try to verify his identity and that he had a valid driver’s license.
Initially, the dispatcher could not find a license for Bartlett in the computer system.
Officer Cole returned to the BMW and told Bartlett they were having a hard time finding him.
“Let me bring it to the station. You’re making me late,” Bartlett told her, his pleasant and apologetic tone and demeanor quickly changed.
Finally, when the dispatcher could only find a record for a person with the same name who had a suspended license, she offered to send backup to Officer Cole. The officer declined.
When she returned to Bartlett’s vehicle, he had found his registration, but still didn’t have proof of insurance. Then she explained the situation to him.
“It doesn’t show that you have a valid driver’s license…” the officer began, and then Bartlett cut her off to insist that he did.
“I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you have that, just understand I have to do some more work on this. If it does show that you have a suspended X-ray number – which it says – you’ll be receiving another citation in the mail,” the officer explained to the councilman.
She told him she was giving him a notice for no driver’s license, and giving him a break on the other two citations. And she explained that it was a “Fix-It Ticket” that could be cleared up by anybody at the station if he went in with his driver’s license.
Instead of being grateful that he hadn’t ended up with much bigger consequences, Bartlett berated Officer Cole not giving him the break he considered his due.
“Breaking my balls [to] give you guys the biggest raise possible,” he told the officer. “This how you repay me?”
“Sir, don’t make this personal. It’s not,” Officer Cole told him.
“It is personal,” Bartlett insisted, but the officer kept her cool, handed him his ticket, and the recording ended.
He also told the officer that had contacted her boss, Berkeley Police Chief Adam Greenwood, to complain, according to Berkeleyside.
The city spokesman said officers have the discretion to determine when to give a warning and when to ticket, and complimented Officer Cole.
“That officer responded professionally throughout that conversation,” Chakko said. “She handled that situation very well.”
A city employee leaked the information about the traffic stop and recording to Berkeleyside, and it took two months for the paper to get the recording with the assistance of legal counsel.
“I’m incredibly sorry,” he said of the incident. “I’m embarrassed, and I feel sorry for the officer, feel sorry for my family and feel sorry for the community.”
But that wasn’t the first time in 12 months that Bartlett tried to abuse the power of his title to get out of a ticket, Berkeleyside reported.
In late October of 2017, Berkeley Police Sergeant Katherine Smith pulled over an Uber in which the city councilman was a passenger.
“The passenger was Ben Bartlett and when Smith contacted the driver, Bartlett immediately identified himself as a Council Member. He did not want the driver to be ticketed,” Berkeley Police Lieutenant Angela Hawk wrote in an email advising her captain of the exchange.
Berkeley Police Public Information Officer Byron White said the email with the subject heading “Council Member interaction” was a “matter of practice” for the department.
Berkeleyside reported that Sgt. Smith did not give a ticket to Bartlett’s Uber driver on that occasion.