An estimated 200 neighbors came out in force Sunday to San Pablo Park’s auditorium to share their worries and ideas following a spate of recent incidents involving gunfire, as well as more longstanding challenges faced in South and West Berkeley.
Some described the event as perhaps the most well-attended public safety meeting the area has seen in years. The atmosphere was upbeat and positive, though some have said the city will now need to take action to make true public safety a reality.
New West Berkeley Councilwoman Cheryl Davila organized the meeting after hearing about constituent concerns related to gun violence and crime. She teamed up with newly elected Mayor Jesse Arreguín and new South Berkeley Councilman Ben Bartlett to field questions and thoughts from residents. Neighborhood services rep Shallon Allen, from the city manager’s office, and Interim Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood also listened closely, and provided information about the current state of affairs.
Ideas from neighbors included community-based solutions such as potlucks and evening walks, programs and services for youth to keep them off the streets, and stepped-up enforcement focused on known criminals. And city staff said they want to work with neighbors to implement effective solutions to help address the violence and make Berkeley safer.
Police Chief Greenwood told attendees that despite about 300 calls since January 2016 about possible gunfire, also known as “loud reports,” police only found evidence of gunfire in 35 incidents. Evidence could include casings, property damage or a victim. (Berkeleyside has requested a detailed list.)
He said 16 of those incidents took place in South or West Berkeley. Most of them, he added, were linked to just a few individuals. Three were tied to one person, who has since been arrested and charged, Greenwood said. A set of four and a set of five have also been tied to “common players” in a “pool of less than 10 people.”
“We know there are a very small number of people in this community, including a very small number of small gangs, who are responsible for the lion’s share of these incidents,” he said, and are primarily focused on each other. Greenwood declined to identify the gangs, however: “I’m not going to say gang names because I’m not going to legitimize them in that way.”
Greenwood said investigators have been working hard to figure out who’s responsible, even when witnesses have not been forthcoming. And he said he understood the fear and frustration in the room, and the concern that BPD has not done enough to address the violence.
“You may not know what work we’re doing, and that’s on us,” he said.
He also said the department has been working hard to boost staffing. Nine new officers are now being tested out under supervision on Berkeley streets.
Some neighbors said the 35 number seemed awfully low, and that they’d like to see Berkeley have a ShotSpotter system like in Oakland and Richmond and, as of recently, at UC Berkeley. The system uses microphones to pick up and record possible gunfire to help police respond quickly to the right spot. Greenwood said those systems may be prohibitively expensive and that BPD’s next big technology acquisition is slated to be body-worn cameras.
Davila said she want to start organizing neighborhood walks, and encouraged residents to keep coming out to community-building events. She’s already planned one for Saturday, Feb. 4, in the San Pablo Park auditorium from 2-5 p.m. to “Unite the Community.” She’s also planning a town hall forum on violence prevention for February or March.
“If we can get all of us to do this, that will be a powerful statement,” she said.
Davila collected sign-ins and email addresses from meeting attendees, which she said would help her going forward because she’s had no email list to this point. (She and the other new council members began their work Dec. 1.) Her city website continues to have no way to sign up for the district email list.
After brief remarks from city officials, residents got a chance at the mic to raise concerns. One local resident, Marc Weber, described being at San Pablo Park with his young daughter when bullets whizzed past their bodies. He said the city needs to work to instill “fear into the hearts of the few people responsible for these crimes.” He suggested going after people with active warrants, and using crime suppression units or a task force to focus on people on probation and parole. He said Berkeleyans, who have one of the highest property tax rates in the Bay Area, deserve to feel safe.
“The monies are there,” he said. “We have the resources. The allocations simply aren’t being put there.”
Others pushed back and said it would be better to talk to the youth and invest in them to help them get on productive pathways forward. Clarence Ford, a former Berkeley Unified student who ended up in prison but is now in graduate school at UC Berkeley, said those relationships can make all the difference.
“Berkeley is so small and the people who are doing stuff, they’re identifiable right?” he said. “And I’m down to do that. I got credibility out here.”
Councilman Bartlett was receptive to that approach.
“We all need to confront isolation with togetherness, and confront fear with courage,” he said. “When you have the courage to address your fear and open your arms to someone, you have the power to transform their life.”
Last Tuesday night, police found evidence of a shooting in South Berkeley at Oregon Street and McGee Avenue. Some said it sounded like an automatic weapon. On Wednesday, an apartment building on Dohr Street near Ashby Avenue was damaged by gunfire.
Earlier this month, Jan. 14, police in Berkeley handled a slew of calls about extensive gunfire at Acton and Russell streets. People in the area after that shooting reported bullet casings littering the street.
And just before New Year’s, on Dec. 29, a child received minor injuries from shattered glass that resulted from a shooting in the 1400 block of Ward Street.
Norman Franklin Sr. told authorities Sunday that recent gunfire was so powerful it pierced a wrought-iron fence around his building.
And one woman pleaded with the city to do more to help stop the shootings. She and others indicated that much of the violence is interrelated. She said her family has faced difficulty since a relative of hers was targeted on Christmas at Sacramento Market.
At 2 p.m. that day, police said, gunfire struck a vehicle and business in the 2900 block of Sacramento Street, at Ashby. The bullets missed, but someone sitting in a vehicle was struck in the face by shattering glass.
The woman said someone has continually targeted her family since then, and that police need to do more.
“I don’t want to live like this,” she said. “My family has been in Berkeley over 100 years.”
She also expressed frustration about the as-yet-unsolved homicide from August of 22-year-old Alex Goodwin Jr. Goodwin lived just south of San Pablo Park and his death hit the neighborhood hard. Numerous speakers, including Goodwin’s mother, sister and grandmother, pleaded with authorities Sunday to do everything they can to solve the case.
The woman said the Goodwin case was “related to everything that’s gone on with all these shootings,” and asked: “When are you going to get these guys off the street?”
Goodwin’s sister, Aneka Patterson, echoed those concerns.
“I know some people who are tired of being shot at, tired of being harassed by these other people and are willing to talk to you guys,” Patterson told police Sunday. “I’m pretty sure you guys know the people who are basically terrorizing South Berkeley and it seems like it’s just nothing being done.”
Mayor Jesse Arreguín and city staff urged residents to band together to be vigilant and offer support. Arreguín said the problems of South and West Berkeley have gone unaddressed for too long, and that the new council pledges to reinvest in both neighborhoods. He said local residents must, however, work with each other and with police if they hope to see improvements.
“If you’re not already part of a neighborhood watch, form a neighborhood watch,” he said, adding that the city must do more with restorative justice, too.
City staffer Shallon Allen told the crowd: “You have a responsibility to each other to keep each other safe.… There are many, many things you guys can do together, but someone has to take the initiative.”
She added, “The solutions are not going to come from this dais. The solutions are going to come from the community.”
Some speakers from the neighborhood urged the city to use best practices, technology and data to tackle the problem. Some pushed for code enforcement to hold property owners accountable. And others pushed for more robust preventive measures. Violence prevention measures need to start as early as possible, they said.
Still others asked where all the guns are coming from.
Berkeley Police Sgt. Spencer Fomby told the group there are more than 300 million guns in the United States.
“As far as gun control, these guns are everywhere,” he said. “These kids can get guns anywhere they want.”
Community speakers also said the police department needs to do a much better job sharing information with the public about violent incidents, and building trust.
One young woman, a 10th-grader at Berkeley High named Laelah Jackson, spoke passionately about the importance of those relationships, and said the community wants to participate if they see good faith efforts from police.
“What are you going to do to build that trust?” she asked. “All I see you guys doing is picking up homeless people off Shattuck Avenue.”
Nixle alerts should be used more often, particularly if evidence of gunfire is found, another woman said.
“We’ve had very minimal information,” she said, noting that her emails to the mayor and council representative had also gone unanswered. “When you don’t have information, what you have is rumors.”
She said neighbors have been brainstorming ideas like buying guns, signing up private security patrols, and adding lights and cameras on people’s houses. But she said some of the proposed solutions raise thorny questions, and that it’s difficult to come up with an effective plan when so little is known about the dynamics on the street.
“We’re coming up with strategies so we can take action,” she said. But, if accurate information is lacking, “then we will come up with our own [strategies] that aren’t necessarily the best.”
Chief Greenwood made a commitment to do better about sharing information, even if there aren’t a lot of details to put out.
“We’ve fallen short on the notification piece,” he said. “I hear you on that. We need to do more work, and better work.”
Greenwood said police are working to build trust in the community, and cited the example of a new class offered this year at Berkeley High where students learn about the criminal justice system and police work. Despite minimal publicity, dozens of students signed up for the year-long class, enough for two full sections. Many officers visited the class and took students on department tours and ride-alongs to help them learn about police work. The course also helped do the kind of relationship building people have said they’d like to see, he said.
Earlier in the meeting, Greenwood had the officers in the room introduce themselves to the crowd and share details about their background and education, and about why they got into law enforcement. He also read from the department’s newly adopted mission, vision and value statements and emphasized BPD’s commitment to Berkeley and its residents.
Greenwood continued: “We are building ourselves as part of the community. We reject divisiveness…. that’s what we’re about.”