Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilman Ben Bartlett have promised to increase police staffing and revive a recently disbanded specialized crime suppression unit to help address neighborhood concerns about safety following a spate of recent robberies in South Berkeley and the Elmwood District.
Both officials tried to reassure local residents, many of whom expressed fear and frustration at the apparent uptick in crime, at a standing-room-only community meeting at the Starry Plough on Saturday. Bartlett, who was elected in November to represent South Berkeley, organized the meeting in response to constituent concerns about public safety.
One attendee summed up the largely unified message in the room for police and city officials: “In the 16 years I’ve lived here, this is unprecedented. We need a solution to this problem now.” Though 2017 has only just begun, Saturday’s meeting was the second large community turnout related to an increase in serious crime. In late January, hundreds of South and West Berkeley residents came together in San Pablo Park following multiple shootings in the neighborhood.
The Starry Plough turnout was smaller — perhaps 100-150 people — and more informal than the meeting at the park. But attendees were vocal in their demands for action. To kick off Saturday’s meeting, Bartlett asked several local residents to testify about how crime has impacted their lives. He had no trouble finding volunteers. Later in the afternoon, local self-defense school Krav Maga Xtreme demonstrated techniques to ward off attacks. And a Berkeley police sergeant fielded questions about BPD’s approach to crime prevention.
Many meeting attendees expressed support for law enforcement and said they want to see a greater police presence in Berkeley. Some speakers advocated for increased programs for youth and more reliance on grassroots neighborhood efforts that do not depend on law enforcement. But most of the community members who spoke said they support the police and want to see more of them.
One woman shared the story of her neighbor who was knocked out one night during a mugging a month or so ago. He stumbled home, she said, and didn’t know what had happened to him.
“He didn’t realize he’d been knocked out,” she said. “It’s scary. We need more police visibility, please.”
Another man said his neighbors, who are in their 70s, had gotten in their car recently after having tea with a friend when a robber confronted the female half of the couple.
“A man walked up to her with a gun, opened the door … pointed the gun in her face and asked her to give him her purse,” he said. “She and her husband were both traumatized from the experience.”
Local resident Dave Fogarty described having been robbed at gunpoint a month or so ago on Woolsey Street near Shattuck Avenue after working at a favorite South Berkeley cafe.
Fogarty said he was walking home at 2 p.m., on a beautiful day, when a car pulled up to him. A man jumped out and stuck a revolver in his face before demanding his backpack, then taking his wallet and phone and ordering him to get on the ground. Fogarty said it was all over within 35 seconds or so, and that he didn’t get a good look at the robber. “All I could really focus on was the barrel of that gun.”
Fogarty said he thought it was just a random experience until he read on Berkeleyside that there had been 34 robberies in January alone. This was followed by a night in Berkeley with at least six robberies, and an armed robbery at Espresso Roma where patrons fought back to try to ward off the criminals.
“It’s like the Wild West,” Fogarty said. “It’s a little crazy.”
Residents also expressed concern about the unsuccessful manhunt — possibly in connection with a series of cafe robberies — involving the Oakland and Berkeley police departments earlier this month. “Enough is enough” seemed to be the overall sentiment in the room. “Come back with a real strategy,” Fogarty told Councilman Bartlett and Mayor Arreguín. “How are you going to stop this?”
Bartlett said the city is already working to create more opportunities for the disenfranchised, to make its hiring policies more inclusive, and to attempt to address homelessness. But he said the city must also do more, on the enforcement side, to prevent violent crime.
Bartlett shared his own story about a family friend — a single mother of two — who had been robbed and assaulted recently on her way home from BART. She’d just gotten a job after being unemployed for an extended period.
“He hit her in the head with a pistol, put her in a coma,” Bartlett said. “She was in the hospital for three days.”
When she got out, she had lost her new job. She’d been living in a rented room with her kids. That fell through and she moved into her car. Six weeks ago, her car got towed. Now, Bartlett said, she’s in a shelter and has been separated from her children. The robber, he added, got $7 in that mugging.
“This is violence. It destroys lives and disrupts dreams,” he said. “It’s not acceptable.”
Bartlett continued: “This neighborhood should not be the place where violence is home,” he said. “We are not put here to be anybody’s prey.”
Sgt. Spencer Fomby, who helps oversee the BPD Community Services Bureau and is on the department’s Special Response Team, told those in attendance most armed robberies in Berkeley tend to happen near campus and downtown.
“South Berkeley is not the typical target,” he said. An average year in Berkeley sees about 300-400 robberies. He said robberies are very difficult to prevent, and described them as one of the highest-priority crimes in Berkeley, second only to shootings. Catching robberies in progress, he added, is exceedingly difficult.
“It happens really fast. The next thing you know, that person is gone,” he said, adding that, without robust descriptions, “it’s like a needle in a haystack to locate that car and locate those suspects.”
In response to a question about the prevalence of gangs in Berkeley, or their connection to robberies, Fomby said they are “no longer operating in the same way” as far as street crime, noting, “Their business model has changed.”
He continued: “People don’t like to see cops flooding the area, stopping everything moving. And we are sensitive to that. We want to make sure we are stopping the people involved in violent crime.… We know how to go in and be surgical and not impact anybody else.”
Bartlett said the right tool for that job is a special police unit that suppresses street violence. And he said that’s a solution he supports and wants to see put in place.
Fomby said BPD used to have that kind of team — the Drug Task Force — but it was disbanded. He said the team would go into neighborhoods and get to know the players involved in crime and drug dealing. Officers worked to identify those individuals and also to intervene: to build relationships to try to help get people on more productive pathways, such as school and jobs.
Community members said they wanted to know what they could do to push the city back in that direction to help increase safety on Berkeley streets.
“There are people in the community who are very vocal in their opposition to police officers being proactive,” Fomby said.
“Nobody here!” shouted a man in the crowd.
“We appreciate the support that you’ve given, and we need that enthusiasm,” Fomby said.
One woman said neighbors already work together through associations and via social network NextDoor — which they should keep doing — but that police must be willing to collaborate and communicate with local residents, too.
“We are being targeted in Berkeley because, I have to assume, there isn’t enough deterrence, and we’ve got a lot of goodies,” she said. “We have phones and we have laptops and we have purses. I’ve had my wallet stolen out of my purse twice at Whole Foods. How cool is that? It’s not cool. I am ready to work with you guys to do some bigger, better, smarter actions on the prevention side. We cannot be a wimpy target.”
Crime in Berkeley spiked by double digits in 2015, then appeared to fall again in the first half of 2016. Put another way, in 2015, serious crimes in Berkeley were at their highest level since they peaked in 2009. The annual crime report for 2016 is coming up before council in March. Trend data for early 2017 won’t be reported by BPD until September.
Meeting attendees said they’d like to see patrol cars more often, want officers to spend more time walking the beat, and want to have an easier time with dispatch when they call in to report crimes they witness, such as drug sales.
In closing remarks, Mayor Arreguín told attendees he and Councilman Bartlett are committed to putting in place a plan to increase resources “so we have a visible police presence.” He described the BPD force as “incredible,” but said the department has struggled due to limited staffing for patrol and to respond to crime adequately.
“That is something we will begin to address, to expand the force,” Arreguín said.
He said he and Bartlett are also exploring, with BPD Chief Andy Greenwood, the possibility of a crime suppression team focused on violent crime and crime trends. The team, he added, is something “we want to put in place immediately, as quickly as we can.” He said after the meeting that it would take a council vote to bring back that team, and that the item would need to go on a future council agenda, as yet unscheduled, for discussion and a vote.
BPD’s Drug Task Force, which was part of the Special Enforcement Unit, was “retired” in early 2016 with little public fanfare. In the 1980s, the Drug Task Force was created to deal with Berkeley’s open air drug markets and associated violence. It started out with three sergeants and 15 officers. Police officials told council last year that the task force had become smaller and smaller over the years because “the drug hot spots were a mere shadow of what they once were.”
A sergeant and two officers on the Drug Task Force were reassigned to patrol to help cover the beats better as the department works on a longer-term strategy to increase overall staffing, which has been on the decline for years. Other members of the task force, the Special Investigations Bureau, moved into the Detectives Division to work on investigations.
“The Bureau will continue to investigate narcotics trafficking, while broadening its attention to investigating crime series, focusing on serious violent felonies, dangerous offenders, and other investigations as needed,” according to a crime report to the City Council in April. Details about the size of that bureau have not been publicized.
Some have said the Drug Task Force, known colloquially in the neighborhoods as “task,” was disbanded due to political pressure. The Berkeley NAACP lauded the break-up of the unit, due to what some have said was its undue and inequitable scrutiny on minority neighborhoods. But other community members have said it was an important crimefighting tool, and have told Berkeleyside its loss was “disheartening.” Officers have told Berkeleyside that it has become more difficult to serve search warrants and do other more specialized operations now that the unit is no longer an option.
Mayor Arreguín told attendees at Saturday’s meeting that the discussion was a first step in making Berkeley safer. He said he and Bartlett want to work directly with neighbors to turn their idea.s about how to move forward on crime prevention, into reality.
“This is unacceptable that anyone in our community should be victimized,” Arreguín said. “We will be doing what we can to expand resources so that we can effectively address the increase in robberies and assaults that are plaguing our community.”
Watch Berkeleyside’s Facebook live video of the second portion of the meeting.