The voices of south and west Berkeley residents were in the house at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.
Residents concerned with drug dealing, housing and youth programs lined up during the public’s portion of the meeting, opening up the terrain of this oft-neglected portion of Berkeley to the public eye.
Over the last decade these neighborhoods have undergone social and economic change. Rents are on the rise, housing prices are skyrocketing, and neighborhoods appear more multi-racial, with whites and hispanics living on blocks where mostly African Americans used to live.
With two shootings in the last week on the 1600 block of Russell Street, a number of residents came to the council to call for an increased police presence in their neighborhoods.
“We have to maintain an uneasy co-existence with drug dealers in our neighborhood,” says John Kaybut, who lives on Russell Street. “There is a shooting turf war that makes me afraid to walk on the sidewalks, sit on our porch, and even inside my home, there is the fear of a stray bullet coming through a window. The city needs to deploy resources to ensure the safety and well being of the residents of this city.”
Although the shootings have not been determined to be drug related, Lt. Russel Lopes said the police believe they are drug and “turf” related.
Stephanie Rosen, the block captain of an organization of Oregon and Russell Street residents told the council: “Drug dealers are selling and recruiting in our neighborhood, bringing resident drug users here who get violent when high, who steal to get money to purchase drugs, and the teenagers that come to Oregon Street create problems as well. All of these things put us residents at risk.”
Though Berkeley police Chief Dash Butler said that police forces have been redeployed to the area to curtail possible further retaliations and shut down drug operations, Rosen said such efforts were only part of the solution. She called on the district attorney to support the police efforts by prosecuting drug offenders by charging them as felonies, not a less weighty misdemeanor charge. At the same time, she called for rehabilitation.
“We need immediate help and we need long term solutions. The DA should be more vigilant in its prosecution of crimes. The city must also ensure that there are an adequate number of rehab facilities and counselors to get people in rehab. We should also ask bicycle beat cops to do outreach to the teens standing on the corners,” she said.
Her words were heard with sympathy, both from council members and police.
After hearing that the neighbors have met monthly for over a year, Councilmember Kriss Worthington told them, “You shouldn’t have to have 100 meetings to live in a safe neighborhood. There are several offenses that I am shocked were considered misdemeanors. I’m not for locking people up, but we have no choice but to put these people in jails and rehab programs.”
Worthington then proposed that a group of councilmembers go to the DA’s office and ask him to prosecute violent offenders more forcefully.
Butler said that the community’s problems would be addressed. “They had their finger right on the button. Detox issues are key. If you don’t have a market, you have no drug trafficking. Decreasing the demand is a long term solution. Also, look at what happens after arrests. I’ve seen drug trafficking increase when individual offenders get out of prison. And drug arrests are often the easiest way to stop violence. There is also a nexus between drug trafficking and violence, so when traffickers get locked up, violence goes down as well.”
After the City Council meeting, which lasted until 11:20 p.m., Butler drove over to Oregon and Russell streets.
“At midnight there were three officers on Russell and McGee streets,” he said Wednesday. “Another car was parked on California, and we had a mobile sub-station in the area as well, so that foot patrol and bike patrol could do their work there, on site, rather than having to come back to the office.”
“There’s no activity there. We are shutting it down.”
But shutting down things at one spot is only a temporary solution, he acknowledged.
“Stopping trafficking is like trying to pick up a tomato seed on a plate with a fork. The scene is constantly changing, and the problem is that it’s so transient. We knew there was a resurgence in trafficking, but to be honest, we’ve been concentrating our work at Sacramento and Alcatraz. These shootings caught us off guard. When that hit, we redeployed to Russell Street,” Butler said.
While the recent spat of violence is getting quite a bit of publicity – the suspects in the Russell Street shootings are believed to be in their early 20s – actual juvenile crime is down in Berkeley, said Steve Odom, head of Berkeley Police Department youth services.
“Last year we had 144 assaults and battery, this year we have only 68,” he says. “It’s the same across the board.”
“What were dealing with is the perception that there’s an increase. We definitely don’t have a youth crime problem here in Berkeley.”
Others see this perception as a consequence of gentrification.
“Newer residents to the area are trying to clean up their neighborhoods,” says a youth advocate associated with Berkeley Youth Alternatives, who spoke to the Daily Planet after the council meeting and asked to remain anonymous. “They tend to be white, middle class and have more education so that they can get the system to listen to their needs.”
The actual threat is no greater than before, Odom said. Juvenile crime has gone down over the last five years in Berkeley he said.
“What we have in Berkeley is a small, recurring problem year after year where minor turf skirmishes happen. But we generally have them under control. These kids aren’t very discreet, and we have security guards in high schools, monitors at middle schools and Berkeley police trained to look for tell-tale signs that they’ll take place.”
This kind of surveillance, however, worries some youth advocates.
“More enforcement isn’t the solution,” says Kevin Weston, former coordinator of Youth Together at Berkeley High. “It creates mistrust between the youth and the police.”
“There have always been a group of kids who are outside of the institutions, not being served by schools or youth programs. The solution is to create programs that work for them, that they want to be part of,” he said.
Kids get caught in the “territory” game, he said. “But that’s because there’s nothing for them to do. Not everyone who graduates from our schools goes to college or finds good jobs so that they can stay in Berkeley. The economic problems here contribute to the larger problem.”
Odom agrees. the youth targeted by the neighborhood groups and the increased enforcement are a small percentage of the overall population.
“We’re talking about 10 percent of the population here. There are a few kids we have identified as kids with a higher risk of getting caught up in gang related activities.”
While residents have used the word “gang” liberally, Butler argued that there are no real organized gangs like Nuestra Familia, or Texas Syndicate in Berkeley. “What we’re talking about is a loose, geographically based group of youth. Gangs in Berkeley have never developed as much as a construct as Bloods or Crips.”
Even so, the problems that residents in south-central Berkeley face continue, including racial tensions, according to one Caucasian Oregon-street resident, who did not want to be named in the story.
“Even my black friends say that our neighborhood is not integrated.”`