Gangs in Berkeley: Police break silence

Gang-related graffiti has previously been a common sight near Strawberry Creek Park, particularly on the Berkeley Youth Alternatives building, as shown here. Photo: Emilie Raguso

This week, for the first time ever, Berkeley police officers were given carte blanche to speak without filters at a public meeting about gang activity in town and what can be done to help those who are drawn to it.

Monday night, BPD gang experts Sgt. Patty Delaluna and Officer Matt McGee offered insight into the main gangs in Berkeley, the history of local gangs, dynamics that have sparked recent violence, and more. The meeting was organized by the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee (BSNC), which has monthly sessions at BPD on public safety subjects such as shootings in Berkeley, drinking at Cal, youth violence and more.

About 20 local residents attended the meeting, and pledged to take information back to their neighborhoods after officers answered questions about the topic at hand. Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, who showed up late, remarked that nearly no one in the room had come to her violence prevention meeting a few days earlier, and said that’s where the community’s efforts should be.

“It just kind of saddens me to hear this kind of talk because, in a way, it sounds racist, discriminatory,” she said. “I’m just speaking the truth right now, from what I just heard.” Her comments echoed disagreements that have cropped up repeatedly in online forums like Nextdoor, where residents worried about crime have clashed with those who say such discussions inflame racial tensions and promote stereotypes and profiling.


Others in the room Monday said their hope is to find ways to curtail criminal behavior, not demonize a particular demographic group. Some residents spoke about city programs and summer jobs available to youth, and said they want to increase them. Officers emphasized efforts they have made to build relationships and connect at-risk youth and their families to resources — which Berkeley does have — and said the success stories have stuck with them over the years. The failures have made an impact, too.

“Those of us who are really entrenched in the work, we just want to save these kids. We want to stop it,” said Sgt. Delaluna after the meeting. “There was a kid I knew since he was 4 years old, and I watched him bleed out. That just devastates me. It’s not what we want to see, but we know this is the outcome of this type of lifestyle. That’s why we made it our life’s work to stop this behavior.”

Sgt. Patty Delaluna and Officer Matt McGee (center, in black) spoke about gangs at a community meeting Monday. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Delaluna has been credited by many in the police department for her decades-long effort to understand Berkeley gangs, particularly the ones with Hispanic ties. She used to work on the project with another officer, Stephanie Polizziani, who left BPD for Benicia PD last year. Both have qualified as experts to testify in court about Berkeley gang activity. Delaluna has spoken privately about gangs to other agencies in law enforcement and educational settings, but this past week was her first session for the general public. On the eve of her retirement, expected later this year, Police Chief Andy Greenwood said Delaluna would be irreplaceable, and described her commitment and legacy as “tremendous.” Many at the meeting expressed appreciation for the department’s apparent transparency.

“I’ve been involved for a long time in the city, and you let a whole lot of new information out,” former Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean, who runs the BSNC group, told Delaluna. “Other chiefs … denied there were gangs in Berkeley. We are now coming to the realization that there are gangs in Berkeley, and they go back many years.”

Police said, to keep it in perspective, most of the crime in Berkeley isn’t gang-related. At the same time, they agreed that reducing gang activity would lead to less crime. No hard numbers were presented at the meeting but, at a BSNC meeting last fall, a Berkeley homicide sergeant said at least nine of the year’s 25 shootings, to that point, were believed to be gang-related. And the vast majority of the known shooters were adults. Part of the issue is that BPD does not track gang members, or gang-related crime, in a comprehensive manner.

In fact, BPD has said little about gangs for years. In late 2013, when BPD acknowledged that Strawberry Creek Park was “occasionally frequented by Berkeley-based gang members,” it was the department’s first public reference to gangs in quite some time. Several months later, BPD identified two men police said threw glass bottles at an officer as West Side Berkeley gang members. In recent months, the tide may have begun to shift, as police have noted gang ties in court papers related to more than one arrest. But the department typically withholds gang names so, it says, to give them less legitimacy. In spite of that stance, Chief Greenwood, who himself has declined recently to name gangs in public, made no move to limit Monday’s detailed discussion.

Delaluna said she believes it’s important for people to know the names of the gangs to understand the dynamics in their neighborhoods.

“If you name a gang, it actually gives power to the community,” she said. “You name the gang and you educate the community.” She said after the meeting: “It’s like abuse in a family. If you don’t talk about it, you can’t do anything about it.”

Gangs? In Berkeley?

Delaluna got her start in Berkeley in the 90s working first for the city running programs in San Pablo Park. After several years, she became a police officer, and was one of just two Spanish-speaking officers at the time, she said. Early on, she began learning about a gang called West Side Berkeley, or WSB, that hung out at Strawberry Creek and James Kenney parks. She learned it was a Norteño gang tied to the Nuestra Familia prison gang. Norteño, or “Northerner,” gangs are known to do the street work for the prison gang, she said. Its members have been linked to serious violent crimes including murder attempts, robberies and assaults. The most serious case in Berkeley in recent years is that of WSB member Krishna Ferreira, who is facing charges in a 2013 homicide outside Bing’s Liquors that authorities say was gang-related.

Delaluna said WSB goes back to the late 70s, when it began simply as a club, which is not uncommon. In the 80s, she said, some of its members began smoking marijuana and getting involved with criminal activity. Discussion among members followed, and the group’s criminal element ended up keeping the name, she said. In addition to the parks, gang members also hung out on the U.S. Post Office steps downtown wearing the color red to “show their colors.”

Gang membership, she noted, is not a crime. But committing crimes for the benefit of a gang is illegal. Delaluna said the department has been able to do a lot of work — using stay-away orders and gang enhancements to push for stricter sentencing — to discourage WSB members from committing crimes in Berkeley. If a gang member was a minor, the officers would hold him — to get him away from the gang — until his parents could come. When she’s met with parents, Delaluna said she walks them through her research to give them a better understanding of what their child might be involved with.

WSB graffiti — which sometimes includes the Roman numeral XIV, or X4, a reference to the “N” (the 14th letter of the alphabet) in Norteño — has been a frequent sight, even in recent years, on the west side of town. Delaluna described efforts working with neighbors around Strawberry Creek Park, which had numerous shootings and apparent gang activity nearby, to educate them and clean up the area to make it more family-friendly. Those efforts have largely worked, Delaluna said. Over the years, she estimates she’s counted perhaps 300 WSB members and associates. There may be 40-50 who are still “somewhat active,” but most have left Berkeley, she said.

West Side Berkeley, or WSB, gang graffiti appears in a variety of places on the west side of town. This was spotted in January 2014 on Sixth Street north of Allston Way. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Berkeley has in the past also seen some Southerner, or Sureño, gang members who claim the letter 13 (XIII) and are allied with the Mexican Mafia prison gang, she said. Some have gone by “BST” or “Berkeley South Trece,” but there has been little activity from them in recent times. Delaluna said, back in the 90s, a Sureño student stabbed and killed a Norteño one, but the Norteño prevalence at Berkeley High essentially knocked out the competition. In more recent times, some local residents have said they are part of the Border Brothers, or “BB,” a Hispanic gang in Oakland that’s separate from the Norteños and Sureños. But they haven’t been very active in Berkeley, either.

Delaluna and Officer McGee explained how the landscape of Berkeley gangs has changed significantly over the years. In the past, gangs were largely made up of a single racial group; now there are “hybrid” gangs with members of different races. Territory, down to the block, used to be a huge issue — and Oakland still uses maps to track gang activity — but the situation in Berkeley has become more fluid, the officers said. That’s not to say the neighborhood doesn’t matter: Berkeley gangs still claim the South and West parts of town. But gang members are much less likely to be “posting up on the block” in large groups the way they used to in the 90s and early 2000s, Delaluna said. And, today, social media is playing a greater and greater role in gang disputes and in how people actually identify as members of those groups.

“In the past it was the turf area,” Officer McGee said. “That’s really not so much the case anymore. It’s more about who you’re communicating with and following on social media, and who the groups are that you align with.”

Social media plays key role in “beef” online

Several incidents of violence police have linked to Berkeley gang members in recent years have been sparked or exacerbated by posts on social media. An Instagram photo disrespecting Jermaine Davis, just after he was shot to death in Berkeley in 2013, may have contributed to a “rampage of violence” that left a little girl dead in Oakland, and a slew of other victims. Davis was identified as a leader in West Berkeley’s Waterfront — or H20 — gang, though some who knew him said he had gotten his life in order shortly before his death and was trying to get younger family members on track. That same year, disrespectful social media posts may have led to the incarceration of four other men with Waterfront ties on allegations of a “murder plot” in Oakland.

When Waterfront members get incarcerated, Delaluna said, they affiliate with the Kumi, or Kumi 415, prison gang. The Black Guerrilla Family, founded in San Quentin prison in 1966, also has members in Berkeley; the father of the man sentenced to death for the revenge killing above — Darnell Williams Jr. — was a BGF member when his son was growing up. Officer Polizziani, testifying in court in 2014 on a Berkeley murder case, noted that WSB is somewhat unique because it shares territory with Waterfront, which has been active in the neighborhood around Eighth and Camelia streets in West Berkeley.

In 2015, the “new generation” of Waterfront members, who call themselves “Babas,” took to social media to burn a picture of 14-year-old Davon Ellis after he was killed in Oakland, Delaluna said. That prompted a wave of online beefing, and drew numerous Oakland students into Berkeley to push back. In those events, which authorities have called “wildings,” more than 100 youth turned up repeatedly to Berkeley streets, resulting in injuries, confiscated weapons and arrests. The first wilding actually took place in 2014, Delaluna said, and she eventually learned that dueling school football teams were responsible for much of the brouhaha. She went on to work with the Oakland Unified School District to identify involved Oakland students and meet with their parents to nip some of that activity in the bud.

“The last thing I want to see is kids go this route. I want them to be successful and change the world in a positive way,” she said. “I’m always willing to give a kid a chance, but if that kid is hurting another kid, then I don’t have a choice. There are consequences to that.”

Gang research crosses city lines

Speaking of Oakland, Delaluna said a lot of the gang members BPD contacts in Berkeley actually live in Oakland. And some of the shootings that happen in Oakland are done by “Berkeley gangsters.” So she ends up spending a fair amount of time working with Oakland on those cases, she said. Any given month, she estimated, 50-100 gang members are contacted by police in Berkeley, but many of those could be from other cities. She said hard numbers are elusive because the department doesn’t track them. Delaluna’s gang research has been an ancillary duty when she can find time outside her main assignment as a patrol supervisor.

After the 2015 wildings, Delaluna said, she realized through her digging that some members of the Babas were actually the children of Waterfront members. Initially, police considered the Babas more of a “disruptive group,” not a gang, but research made it clear to her that its members had access to weapons and criminal aspirations. The gang has also identified as “B.O.H,” or “Bros Over Hoes,” Delaluna said. Members of the group started out with crimes such as prowling, trespassing and burglary, and moved on to more serious ones like robbery. They range from about 17 or 18 to their early 20s at this point. There may be 20 members of the group. But, again, it’s hard to know for sure.

“They have many who will say they are but, in reality, they just claim [gang membership on social media],” Delaluna said. “But they don’t really do anything but get high.”

In November 2015, Delaluna heard rumors that indicated a rift had occurred where older gang members were requiring youth to “choose sides” between South and West Berkeley. That’s when 16-year-old Sultan Bey, now deceased, was left in critical condition with major head trauma after being stomped by a group of other teens. His mother told the media at that time that he was told to choose a side, but refused. “He was asked to choose a side to be on and he was like, ‘I’m not choosing a side because I’m not in this. I don’t know what you want me to do but I’m friends with everybody,'” his mother told ABC 7.

After that, Delaluna said a number of South Berkeley youth began calling themselves “Ls,” and making an “L” sign to identify with each other. In response, Babas were posting photographs where they would make the “L” sign upside down to show disrespect. Disses went back and forth on social media, but alliances remained fluid, with various people “bouncing back and forth” between both groups from one day to the next. One day, about a year ago, Delaluna said she came across a diss video posted online. She told patrol she had a feeling there could be retribution. The next day, three teens were shot in a car on Parker Street, though they all survived. One of the young men who was shot, Aaron Meredith, has been identified as a Baba and was recently charged in connection with two shootings in South Berkeley in December.

Delaluna said the “Ls” name could reference the phrase “Take no losses,” and may also pay homage to a friend of theirs who was killed: “Long Live Larry.” Before the Ls, the 5 Finga Mafia was active in South Berkeley and North Oakland starting in perhaps 2013. Local gang members once called their territory “2800 Krakk Street” because they claimed San Pablo Park, she said, at 2800 Park St. “Way back in the day, they used to deal crack at this park,” Delaluna said. “They eventually morphed into the 5 Finga Mafia and originally claimed it was their rap label, but they and other gangs now refer to them always as 5 Finga Mafia. They are aligned with NSO or North Side Oakland and several will also not only claim 5 Finga but Campbell Village Gangsters or CVG, an Oakland gang.”

Delaluna said the Ls are Berkeley’s “youngest generation of kids” who associate themselves with gang life. But she said they are “not necessarily the hardened or brazen gangsters … they just rap about it.” Unlike other groups, Ls generally use their music to promote South Berkeley rather than criticize other neighborhoods. She said members of the Ls overlap with the rap collective “MBK,” or “My Brother’s Keeper,” though Ls who have appeared in MBK videos are not out causing violence. Some have been targeted, she said. And some in the background of the videos, according to Delaluna, “do live the violent life of gangs and closely associate with the 5 Finga Mafia.” (In addition, three members of the Ls are facing gun charges after a fight in March.)

For those whose heads are spinning, she said Monday night, it’s only natural given the complexity of the dynamics and relationships. It’s taken her an entire career to amass the knowledge she’s acquired.

“Grasping gang names, alliances and such is really quite complicated and can be fluid depending on the generation,” she said. “The reality of it is, identifying a gang is much more complicated than just a one-time stop on the street or types of clothing or tattoos. It’s an evolved process that takes time.”

Police: “Everybody’s a rapper and every rapper wants to be a gangster”

From her research, Delaluna said, Berkeley youth aren’t drawn so much to gangs anymore out of a need for protection, or because of poverty. It’s simply become the most appealing social group for some. She said the Bay Area is a national hub for underground hip hop, and some youth have been talented and lucky enough to get rich just by posting their music on sites like YouTube and SoundCloud. Many of the youth are trying to make it big by rapping about gangster life.

“Everybody’s a rapper and every rapper wants to be a gangster,” she said. “Most of them are not actually getting in trouble with the cops. They graduate high school with decent grades. But they’re rappers. And they rap that lifestyle, and they get caught up in that. And then what you have is, behind them, friends they grew up with that are kind of marginalized flashing guns.”

Added McGee: “I don’t get the sense that they’re breaking the law for a means of money or capitalism or anything like that. I get the sense that they’re doing it for the likes on social media.… I don’t see them ‘paying taxes‘ [to a prison gang], at least the group that I deal with.… This is the direct threats on social media: going after one person in particular for the actions that they’ve done on social media.”

McGee spends the bulk of his shift at BPD as the school resource officer at Berkeley High. The city used to have officers at the middle schools, too, but that program fell apart due to lack of funding. Last year, the department sought funding to put a school resource officer at Berkeley Technology Academy (BTA), but the School Board opposed the plan. Some school officials have said putting police in schools will traumatize youth and result in criminalization at an earlier age. The police department’s position — with support from the school superintendent and former BTA principal — has been that creating a strong relationship between an officer and at-risk students is actually better for youth in the long run.

Sgt. Spencer Fomby, who worked in South Berkeley as a beat officer and was on the Drug Task Force before it was disbanded, said intervention and building relationships with those in the streets is a big part of the work BPD has done. Fomby said he’s been heartened to see youth who heard him speak at twilite basketball come up to him and let him know they’re now in college, now have jobs. But other times, the end result is not so good, and a shooting or prison is the outcome. Over the years, he said, he’s seen a wide range of family dynamics.

“There are extremes. We have families that raise their kids to be gang members. It is shocking,” Fomby said. “And all the way up to kids whose family lived in Hercules, lived with both parents, a great family, and they’re coming to me like, ‘My kid is in the street, he wants to be a gang member. He lives in the suburbs, but he’s coming here to Berkeley to participate in gangs. Help us save our kid.'”

Police responded to numerous youth fights that drew scores of youth into Berkeley from Oakland in 2014 and 2015. Photo: Siciliana Trevino

McGee said he regularly meets with, and texts, parents of students to try to build that bridge home to make sure youth are where they’re supposed to be, particularly when problems arise. But parents often say they feel hopeless when they get his calls.

“They’re appreciative. They’re responsive,” he said. “But you’re dealing with a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old. They’re so far along already. And unfortunately we’ve got them now at this stage and, we’re trying, but sometimes that gang, that group that they’re associating with, has already got them.” 

McGee, who majored in social work at UC Berkeley and was in juvenile probation for years before getting hired at BPD, said he strives to avoid labeling — known to have a negative impacts on youth — but will go to parents if he has evidence and facts to make his case. Some parents, who have histories of their own with law enforcement, have told him they want a better life for their children. But they’ve told McGee their attempts to keep their kids out of trouble have fallen short.

Racial inequity makes crime conversations perilous

BPD’s relationship with BUSD has been challenged over the years. There have been repeated conversations about collaboration, but it’s unclear whether progress has been made. There have been disputes about what information can legally be shared between the institutions. In 2011, then-Police Chief Michael Meehan said the school district had made it clear it wouldn’t call BPD if there was a robbery on campus. The national political dialogue about race has added another layer of complexity. Delaluna recalled a meeting with school officials, shortly after the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Berkeley, where police tried to bring up the Babas, a black gang, and hit a roadblock.

“Nobody wanted to hear it. We said, we’re bringing this up because that’s where the problem is right now. It’s not by choice. We don’t look for the race,” she said. Delaluna said BPD focused on West Side Berkeley (a Hispanic gang) when it was causing problems, and another group, the 510 Clown Mob (a hybrid gang that’s mostly white) when it was making trouble downtown. “And, when it was the Babas, we needed to deal with them. It’s such a hard discussion for the school and the city to have.”

The remarks about racism and discrimination, by Councilwoman Davila, reflected that position. Attendee Laura Menard — a longtime South Berkeley public safety advocate who helped bring about Monday’s meeting — said at the meeting that she finds the unwillingness in Berkeley to discuss crime, its causes and solutions, deeply disturbing. And she said that puts too many kids, who are raised to underestimate the risks of gangs and criminal behavior, in danger.

“I find it immoral and outrageous that we’re not naming the problem and shaming the problem more directly as a society — because we have kids that don’t understand the level of threat that they can be on the perimeters of. And they can be the one that becomes the victim,” Menard said. “We’re not going to be, as a society, taking responsibility for the fact that there’s a lot of young people and adults with guns prepared to get into beefs over stuff that’s nothing. Nothing.”

She mentioned two young Berkeley High grads killed last summer when they were caught in the crossfire at a birthday party at a downtown Oakland club. Days earlier, another Berkeley High grad was killed in an Oakland shooting that her mother said was aimed at someone else. In 2014, a young woman with a bright future who had just graduated from Berkeley Technology Academy was killed in Oakland during a shooting in a Wendy’s parking lot; her boyfriend was also shot but reportedly survived.

Menard said it’s youth like those, brought up in Berkeley to dismiss potential danger signs in the interest of the city’s entrenched social justice philosophy, that she is most concerned about. Menard has pushed hard for “school-linked probation services,” in place in other counties like Contra Costa, to keep a closer eye from an earlier age on youth who’ve run into problems. The idea, she said, is to track attendance, grades and behavior in a more robust way to produce more meaningful results. Menard describes the approach as progressive. She also noted local efforts that have worked in the past to use city code enforcement to target problem properties, where criminals gather, to break up those hotspots.

Students acted out a scene about a robbery over a pair of shoes as part of a 2013 anti-gun-violence assembly at Berkeley High. Photo: Emilie Raguso

She and Delaluna said other cities have effectively used a technique known as “call-ins” to have intensive sit-downs with the community members causing the most violence: to lay out their options in a room alongside pastors, attorneys, law enforcement, community organizations and more, and get them to cease and desist their crimes, or else. Berkeley hasn’t taken that approach. Meeting attendees said it could be useful in Berkeley, and that they’d like to see “scared straight” talks, youth employment, a bigger budget for youth recreation programs, and more.

The city has no single resource for those seeking programs for disadvantaged youth. But meeting attendees brought up Berkeley Youth Alternatives (BYA) and the Young Adult Project (YAP) as two reliable options. YAP is run out of the MLK Jr. Youth Services Center, at 1730 Oregon St. by Grove Park, and has a popular boxing program, and twilite basketball, along with many other options described as “meaningful recreation experiences that include tutoring, violence prevention, and leadership development components for teens and young adults.” In late February, the city announced its summer job program for youth (paying $10.50 an hour), and held several free resume workshops last month.

Several attendees said neighborhood watch groups, and modern technology, continue to be an effective way to share information with each other and with police. But that’s not always enough. Sherri Kaiser spoke on behalf of residents around San Pablo Park who were concerned about repeated gunfire in the neighborhood — and a fatal shooting — that began last year and continued into 2017. She said the situation was exacerbated by the silence from BPD: “It was very distressing. Not just that it was going on, but that we didn’t know what was going on.”

She said Monday’s meeting helped fill in some of those gaps, but hoped more information about how to identify gangs could be made available. Delaluna suggested simple Google searches, for terms like gang names and “gangs in Berkeley,” along with academic classes and books, as ways to learn more. And the officers said that, while gangs are an issue, a broader perspective may be useful on a daily basis for those with safety concerns.

“We all agree that the crime here in Berkeley is not 100% gang-related,” said Officer Brandon Smith, area coordinator in Northeast Berkeley. “So let’s look for suspicious activity, criminal behavior. Don’t seek out the gangs per se.”

Perhaps it’s someone riding up and down the block on a bike who appears to be acting as a lookout. Or maybe you see people “looking into cars more carefully than you would when you’re on a walk,” he said. Getting several calls from the same neighborhood night after night is likely to produce results.

Delaluna concurred: “It’s knowing your neighbors. It really is knowing your community and your beat cop.”

The Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee is an umbrella organization for neighborhood watch groups around the city. It meets monthly at BPD and has a Facebook page. Have a public safety concern in your neighborhood? BPD has four area coordinators assigned to help with neighborhood issues.