Walking into a coffee shop on Telegraph Avenue where everybody knows his name, Sgt. Alec Boga spots a man with long blond hair standing by the door and asks him, “Hey hippie, where you been?”
The man breaks into a big smile and tells him he went to a concert, and the two trade small talk about how good it was.
Boga has worked just about every detail in his 26 years on the Berkeley Police Department, but supervising the Telegraph Avenue detail, comprised of four officers who work in tandem with three UC officers, is mainly about service now.
That’s good because in the not too distant past when drug dealers hung around in gangs outside stores, the ‘60s ambience had turned into a danger zone.
“There’s always things happening on Telegraph, but you don’t have the public consumption of malt liquor, drug dealing and quality of life issues, and he is largely responsible for that,” said Boga’s friend, Sgt. Cary Kent of Robbery Detail.
At the coffee shop he was not wearing his uniform, and he finds that when he’s in blue he walks the street and pulls one kind of response, but out of uniform people are more willing to talk.
“You gotta listen,” he says, explaining the technique involves walking around and listening to people. “When they know who you are as a person, they’re willing to work with you.”
Nevertheless, he said, Telegraph “is one of the most challenging places to be a cop, but it has unique rewards.”
“We call him the Bruce Willis of Telegraph,” jokes Kathy Berger, executive director of the Telegraph Area Association.
“He’s very good, very personable. He’s friendly and he’s tough. He really cares about people and it shows.”
Berger said the stepped-up police effort arose from “a coming together” of the stakeholders in the Telegraph community who wanted the neighborhood to be safe and clean and pedestrian friendly. “That message was sent to City Hall.”
“No one wanted to see a violation of anyone’s civil rights, but everyone wanted their civil rights respected,” she said.
The collaboration of merchants, residents, students, the city and the university made it happen, said Berger.
The Health and Safety team was created to help address the problems, said Berger, who wrote a proposal that produced $125,000 in city support for the team of social workers and psychologists who help patrol the streets with the cops.
David Wee, supervisor of the Mental Health Program, said the council approved the proposal in June 1998, and it put two mental health professionals on Telegraph six hours daily.
The citywide Mobil Crisis Team responds to calls on Telegraph Avenue when the six-hour shifts are over for the day, he said.
A lot of the problems presented on the street are people acting out, as Boga describes them and he said sending someone to jail does not resolve them.
“We walk the street just like Boga,” said Keith Olson, a social worker on the Health and Safety Team, who has been assigned to Telegraph Avenue since August 1998.
He and about five other mental health professionals look for the people who need services. Some of them are mentally ill, some are substance abusers, others are homeless.
The people who need the services of the Health and Safety Team want a safe street too, he said. “We have the time to build trust for some folks.”
Boga, who is unmarried and works a flexible schedule, said that in past details he has enjoyed working with family units that include kids and grandmothers.
“Telegraph is a different twist to police work,” he said. The multifaceted community has strong segments of students, merchants, academics, and residents. Each segment lobbies its own concerns.
Some locals smoking marijuana, “the drug of choice” on Telegraph Avenue, don’t necessarily merit police attention, he said.
“We go after community concerns,” he said. The stakeholders around Telegraph don’t want open air sales of drugs of any kind and they don’t want sellers from outside town.
In a drug bust in April that targeted Shattuck and Telegraph avenues, Boga said police arrested 30 people. He said the vast majority of them were selling marijuana, and most were not Berkeley residents. The 30 individuals were selling to support their own hard drug habits.
The Telegraph detail was formed in October 1998 when the neighborhood was outraged at drug dealers hanging out in gangs in front of stores and the street hit rock bottom.
“In 1998 there was a lot more crack, because it was allowed to occur,” Boga said. In the 12-week period beginning in October 1998, he said, the team cleaned up Telegraph.
Since the inception of the police team that works hand-in-hand with the Health and Safety Team of social workers and psychologists, the street has less crime and more of an ambience that Boga and many others don’t want to lose.
Berkeley Police statistics for 1998 and 1999 for Beats 6 and 7, which comprise the Telegraph area east and west, demonstrate the changes. In 1998 there were 119 arrests for public intoxication in the two beats. In 1999 there were 244 arrests for the same offense.
Boga said the officer-generated enforcement of alcohol laws has increased because the department is listening to what the community wants on its streets.
Narcotics arrests have dropped, he said, because police have reduced narcotics trafficking. There were 209 narcotics arrests in 1998; in 1999 there were 160.
Disturbing the peace violations dropped from 297 in 1998 to 180 in 1999 and thefts went down from 1086 in 1998 to 825 in 1999.
“There was a lot of drug dealing, a lot of violence, a lot of crime, a lot of people out of control,” said Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s bookstore at Haste Street and Telegraph Avenue. “It seems like it has gotten a whole lot better.”
He also attributed the change to the work of the Health and Safety team and the graffiti cleanup work by the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes Telegraph Avenue, looks to the coordination of city departments for the success.
The combination of the Public Works Department doing additional cleaning, the Health and Safety Teams being established and targeting police activity turned it around, he said.
“The combination of these three departments working together is far more effective than having 100 police officers standing on every corner,” he said.
Roland Peterson, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, and Mark Weinstein, owner of Amoeba Music at 2455 Telegraph, also praised the teamwork.
Weinstein aid business is better than it was, as much as 10 percent better. Customers complained about the situation at the time, he said. Now he gets no complaints about it.
“At one time (about 18 months ago), his employees counted 30 dogs tied up or hanging out on our block. People don’t remember how really bad it got. We notice a lot of people who wouldn’t dare to be out on Telegraph before, out there having a good time, not afraid of walking on the street.”