Nearly two dozen Berkeley police officers were recognized Thursday night for exceptional service, lifesaving efforts, community efforts and more in the second annual Berkeley Police Association dinner at Fieldwork Brewery in West Berkeley.
The awards go back decades in Berkeley though they haven’t always been a regular event, and the format of the ceremony has varied.
Honorees were recognized across eight areas for outstanding work related to a variety of patrol and investigative achievements, and other service to the community. Officer Andres Bejarano, who will be moving into the BPD homicide detail in March, received the top honor of “Officer of the Year.”
“I know the self-sacrifice that you make every day, and I know the commitment you make to make this city a wonderful place,” City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley told the 100 or so attendees at the celebration. “Because of you, it is simply a better place to live.”
Williams-Ridley said she and many others in Berkeley have been inspired by the Berkeley Police Department.
“Thousands of people here in Berkeley look up to each of you and often need you in more critical ways than even your family members. That is both a … burden and an honor,” she said.
Interim Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood told those who had gathered that he appreciated being able to celebrate the department’s successes with current employees, their families, and retirees alike. He thanked staff for being proactive and “for taking action without being asked, without thinking twice.”
“Your good work matters,” he said. “In doing that good work, you make us a great organization.”
Four officers — Rochell Bledsoe, Tim Kaplan, Peter Hong and Dave White — received service and fidelity awards for being at BPD for at least 20 years.
Officer Jeremy Lathrop and Detective Peter Lee received commendations for each having completed a “particularly noteworthy achievement.”
Sgt. Samantha Speelman said Lathrop was instrumental in a “painstaking investigation” that resulted in one of the largest seizures of powder cocaine in department history — more than 2 kilos of cocaine — along with evidence of drug sales, multiple firearms and more. Lathrop obtained confessions that led to four arrests. One of the arrests was a person with a history of violence, including an arrest for murder, Speelman said.
Lee was involved in an investigation into a robbery series tied to 23 robberies in Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, Hayward, San Leandro and San Francisco in February 2016. Speelman said Lee realized how numerous Berkeley robberies fit in, became lead investigator on the cases and developed a regional task force. He pushed for stakeouts at places that might be targeted, and surveillance led to the detention of several armed suspects. Three people were ultimately taken off the streets as a result.
“Even though evidence was lacking,” she said, “he never gave up the fight.”
Officer Lionell Dozier was recognized for community service due to off-duty efforts with the Berkeley Young Adult Project (YAP), which focuses on tutoring, violence prevention and leadership development. He started at YAP in 2001 as a speaker in the Twilite Basketball program, then continued on, helping with homework, mentoring, coaching basketball and assisting on special events and field trips. Dozier also coaches football at Berkeley High.
“Officer Dozier is a wonderful example of a police officer who works alongside — and within — the community he serves,” said Officer Jennifer Coats.
Six officers got “Exceptional Service” awards: Daniel Breaux, Donovan Edwards, Devin Hogan, Megan Jones, Melissa Kelly and Matt McGee. Breaux was described as “one of the leading crime fighters in the department.” Edwards and Jones had a record number of arrests from 2016. All three have been proactive in terms of DUI enforcement.
Hogan was recognized for regular vehicle stops where he has recovered drugs, along with at least eight loaded handguns or pistols, and an assault rifle with a loaded 40-round magazine that had been hidden in a guitar case.
Last year, Kelly got a lead in a “notorious serial sexual assault investigation that shook the Berkeley community” in 2008. After a six-hour interrogation, she had enough evidence for the suspect — Johnny Dunbar — to be charged; he is now awaiting trial and could face life in prison. In another case, a Cal student was sexually assaulted on a footpath near campus. The victim was beaten and robbed, in addition to the sexual assault. After working the case, the suspect was charged with multiple felonies. There were also two major child abuse cases she worked that led to charges by the Alameda County district attorney’s office.
Detective Matt McGee was chosen due to his work as the Berkeley High school resource officer and his help there putting together a course to give students an inside look at police work and the criminal justice system. Students who met McGee in that course have said interactions with him helped them “see police officers as people with families, hobbies, and dreams.” McGee is also the juvenile detective in BPD’s Special Victims Unit: “His duties are often complex and include sexual assaults, domestic violence, and child abuse cases.”
Officer Jennifer Coats, former department spokeswoman, received a meritorious service award. In recent years, she has represented BPD at as many police officer funerals as she can, and written personal letters to departments where officers have died. It all began in 2009, when she attended the funeral for four fallen OPD officers and, since then, she has gone to nearly every officer funeral in Northern California. She’s also volunteered off duty to coordinate the department’s participation in the Northern California Special Olympics.
Five officers received awards for helping save lives.
Last February, Neil Egbert was flagged down near Euclid and Hearst for a man in the street who was unconscious. A doctor was tending to the man, who had a heart attack while jogging. Egbert gave the doctor a CPR mask, and took over chest compressions until paramedics arrived and got the man to the hospital.
The next month, Jessyca Nabozny responded to a scene with a gunshot victim at 10th and Delaware streets He was having trouble breathing and going in and out of consciousness: “Officer Nabozny identified a potentially fatal sucking chest wound and was able to successfully seal the wound with her gloved hand.”
In July, officers responded to the 2100 block of Fifth Street when a 4-month-old baby stopped breathing. Officer Kenneth Tu had to hop a fence to get inside because no one would answer the door. He quickly began infant CPR and got a faint pulse, and Officer Chris Flores, a trained EMT, took over when he arrived. Both received lifesaving awards. Two other officers — Matthew Valle and Jaylon Debruin — received commendations for their coordination of resources on scene.
In September, Casimiro Pierantoni went to a family fight at a home on Prince Street. A man inside in mental health crisis had a knife and was threatening to kill himself as well as responding officers. Over the course of three hours, Pierantoni worked to develop a rapport with the man who several times tried to throw glass bottles at him. Ultimately, he convinced the man to come outside, resolving the standoff.
The final award of the night went to “Officer of the year” Bejarano, sometimes called “Beej,” who has been at BPD for just five years. He was chosen for his “strong work ethic, exceptional casework and his dedication to duty.” He grew up in Chico and got a bachelor’s in construction management from Chico State. He was a high school football coach during college, then helped build a terminal at Sacramento Airport before getting hired at BPD.
He’s served on the department’s Drug Task Force and Special Response Team, and is a field training officer, helping to guide and oversee new hires. Come March, he’ll be the department’s newest homicide detective. And, last year, he received a “Hero Award” from Mothers Against Drunk Driving for initiating the most DUI arrests at BPD.
Bejarano made more than 50 arrests last year, and often has one of the highest records for arrests each month.
“Many of these arrests involved substantial amounts of investigation and his efforts have translated to successfully prosecuted cases and a valued reputation at the district attorney’s office,” said Sgt. Emily Murphy in her remarks about the award. In one of those cases, a search of individuals in a parked vehicle led to the recovery of stolen property from four auto burglary victims. Bejarano was able to get a confession from the suspect.
In another, he helped track down and arrest a man suspected of convincing minors to give him lewd photographs. After the arrest, Bejarano found photographs of the victims on the man’s cellphone, and later got a full confession.
There was also a case where, during a car stop, he recovered three loaded firearms “concealed in secret compartments throughout the vehicle,” then got confessions from all three of the vehicle’s occupants related to the guns. All three were charged and entered no contest pleas in connection with the case.
In his “thank you” speech, Bejarano described the job as a “great adventure.”
“This award here says ‘officer of the year’…. but there are numerous men and women who are deserving of this,” he said. “I’ve just been lucky enough not only to have met great people here, but great cops.… cops who wanted to make a difference and work hard.”