Opinion: Berkeley Police Department: Seeing compassion in action

An early-morning encounter in a Berkeley coffee shop between a man and some police officers prompts a response.

July 26, 2017 — 7:10 a.m. or so, Philz Coffee, Shattuck Avenue, downtown Berkeley.

I’m writing this to commend the two Berkeley police officers I saw this morning while I was having tea at Philz. I don’t know who they were and didn’t want to bother them to ask — but maybe they’ll get to see this and know that their kindness didn’t go unnoticed.

A loud shout and swearing broke out from downstairs, following a crash. Angry yelling from a deep voice. Everyone stopped to see what was happening, and a man who looked a bit out of sorts, and like he might be one of Berkeley’s too-many un-homed residents came stamping up the stairs, adding an extra, heart-felt “Shit!” and “F*ck!” as he reached for some napkins at the water station.

He appeared very upset and perhaps a bit volatile, then looked up to see a table of officers and their friends (or co-workers out of uniform?) looking at him. They had been having a boisterous, laughing conversation and were smiling at the man — not condescendingly but genuinely, in sympathy, and the man seemed to pull himself together a little and apologized. He had just spilled all his coffee, I think, on himself in part.

One of the uniformed officers made a light comment about understanding, then asked if he could help in some way. The shift in the man was dramatic. He actually stopped his motion, where he had been hunched over and scowling, and his face relaxed as he straightened and answered, quietly. I didn’t hear what he said but I think he asked for another coffee… whatever it was, the officer smiled and said, “of course”, and walked over to accompany the man back downstairs.

The scene could have played out so differently — and perhaps that’s what others in the room expected. There is enough unease between some of the police and residents, especially if they’re assumed to be part of the homeless population, that it could have gotten more tense rather than less. But these two officers and the others at their table responded calmly and with compassion — and it made all the difference, diffusing the tension in the room and bringing a solution rather than conflict.

It was also a beautiful show of human kindness and the simple things we can do to make another’s day easier. I noticed earlier that someone — who I think was random and unknown to the group with the officers — had paid for their coffees when they weren’t looking. Kindness leading to kindness.

It’s been a lovely early morning hour and I wanted to share it, with my gratitude to the officers of the Berkeley PD who went out of their way to make someone’s life a bit easier.

Ariane Wolfe is a parishioner and lay minister at All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley and works at the UC Berkeley College of Engineering.