A Berkeley community group focused on crime prevention pledged to up its game Monday night, and representatives from the Police Department said they plan to ramp up their own collaboration with neighbors.
Those efforts may be particularly important given the double-digit increase in crime Berkeley saw in 2015. Berkeley police officials reported in March that overall Part 1 crime — a federal designation for the most serious incidents — was up 16% in 2015 compared to the prior year. Violent crime increased 20%, especially in the area of robberies, while property crime was up 16%. There was a 28% increase in vehicle thefts as compared to the prior year.
The group that met Monday, the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee (BSNC), has worked for some time to provide a city-wide scope to, and coordination about, block-level crime concerns. It meets monthly with police and sometimes takes positions on public safety problems, primarily through letters to council and other city leaders. But active participation in the organization has languished, and its board is working to re-energize the group, which has more than 100 people on its email list.
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One way the BSNC hopes to revive itself is through Facebook: The group has launched a new Facebook page to help neighbors connect. Former Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean, who helps oversee the BSNC, announced the Facebook page Monday night. Dean said the board is committed to a “coordinated approach” that involves all the city’s Neighborhood Watch and disaster preparedness groups that want to join forces.
One local resident, Howard Rosenberg, said his block combined those two efforts last year.
“They both have to do with safety,” Rosenberg said. “Why would they be thought of separately?”
The city has been struggling to find more ways to help local residents connect with each other, but has in the past taken the position that privacy rules limit the role the city can play. Last week, one city staffer who is working to build community resilience by helping neighbors get to know each other said efforts are underway to see if there could be a different approach. But, for now, residents are stuck asking neighbors in person or searching online to try to connect with existing resources.
In addition to the push by the BSNC to rebuild itself, Berkeley Police Department reps said the department is ramping up its approach to community engagement. There’s a big gap to fill. The department’s monthly newsletter has fallen by the wayside. Lieutenants used to meet periodically with the public during “coffee with the commander” events until those, too, ground to a halt. Those four lieutenants each work with an “area coordinator” charged with public outreach, but emails from those officers have been increasingly infrequent in recent years.
And, though the department has at times effectively used Nixle crime alerts to push out information about high-profile incidents, that campaign has been inconsistent. Twitter and Facebook have still not been adopted, though they reportedly are on the horizon.
Getting up to speed on the existing Neighborhood Watch activity is another part of the equation. Berkeley Police Capt. Andrew Greenwood said Monday night there are “many dozens” of those groups in Berkeley. The department is working to update its lists to determine which are active.
Greenwood said he too would like to see the Berkeley CERT emergency preparedness groups work more closely with Neighborhood Watch groups, and saw no reason that should be a problem. Both participate in the annual National Night Out celebration, which saw record engagement last year due in large part to the efforts of its coordinator, Officer Stephanie Polizziani.
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Greenwood linked the department’s renewed focus on boosting community crime prevention activities, in part, to recent staffing changes. In mid-March, the new schedule for officers came out, which shifted certain assignments around to get more bodies on regular beat patrols, Greenwood said. The department dissolved its drug task force and reduced its number of bike patrol officers. He said hiring is up compared to last year, and that beats are less often empty.
“We’re in better shape today than we have been for awhile,” he said, about staffing. “We did go low. It just takes hiring to bring that up.”
As part of the reorganization, the department expanded its Community Services Bureau (CSB), which Greenwood oversees. There is a new lieutenant — Kevin Schofield — and the CSB now includes BPD’s new spokesman, Sgt. Andrew Frankel. There has been some discussion of adding another officer, focused on social media, to the bureau later this year.
The CSB also includes the four “area coordinators,” each of whom is assigned to a quadrant of the city and works to field questions from the public and meet with neighborhood groups. All of that is to say there are now more department resources devoted to getting information to the public, Greenwood said.
Two of the area coordinators are new — Sean Tinney (Southside to the Oakland border, or Area 2) and Jumaane Jones (South Berkeley, or Area 3) — and both said Monday night they plan to redouble efforts to help respond to community issues and help blocks get organized. They join Area 1’s Brandon Smith and Area 4’s Chris Scott in the CSB. All the coordinators are overseen by a sergeant, Spencer Fomby.
One meeting attendee said he would like more guidance from police about how more security cameras might help fill the gap in crime-fighting efforts caused by stretched BPD staffing. He listed off a number of recent property crimes in his neighborhood, near Live Oak Park, including repeated auto break-ins, recurring bike thefts and more.
“There’s no stopping it and we’re kind of getting angry,” he said. “It’s not a lot of damage, but it’s a pain in the butt. We’re getting to the point where we can’t take it any longer.”
Greenwood said the department could help the man get a Neighborhood Watch group set up, and is also planning a special forum for the community that would focus on security cameras and home surveillance. He said the city has in the past considered the creation of an opt-in registry of home surveillance systems to help police more easily know what footage might be available as they work to solve crimes.
Greenwood also noted that, though the Neighborhood Watch format has long been a cornerstone of effective crime prevention, the department must broaden its thinking too. Community groups now communicate through email, on social networks such as Facebook and Next Door, and in other ways. And BPD wants to find ways to provide relevant information across the spectrum, he said.
Some attendees said they want to hear more often about when crimes are solved, and would still like to see the city find a way to combine BPD and UCPD statistics to make it easier to understand the full picture of crime in Berkeley. Frankel, the new department spokesman, said BPD plans to get up and running on social media as soon as possible, and wants to play a more active role in getting out those positive stories.
On the topic of the surveillance camera registry, Councilman Kriss Worthington told fellow attendees the Berkeley City Council plans to consider it in June as part of its next budget process.
“I’ve been a passionate advocate against surveillance cameras owned by the government, but equally passionate that, the more people who have private surveillance cameras, the better for everybody,” he said. “When we need it, we can have access to that information. It’s a delicate balance but I think it makes sense.”
Want to reach the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee? Email its organizers. Have a question about a local public safety incident? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Photographs and videos are always appreciated. See the bottom of our weekly crime blotter for more resources.
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