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Drugs dominate police review commission forum

By Matthew Artz Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday May 30, 2002


Drug violence, not police brutality, is what plagues West Berkeley, said area residents at a Police Review Commission Community Forum at the Rosa Parks Elementary School Wednesday night. 

The community meeting, chaired by the PRC, and attended by Police Chief Dash Butler was organized to address concerns about increasing police brutality, especially among the city’s narcotics taskforce. 

However, most of approximately 40 residents in attendance rose to defend the police department, and decry the recent escalation of drug dealing around 10th and Addison Streets. 

“I have a problem,” exclaimed Albert Benjamin, who has lived at the intersection for 25 years. “The last nine months these people are in my living room.”  

Benjamin’s depiction of a neighborhood under siege was supported by many of his neighbors. 

Addressing a member of the audience who disagreed with him, Tim McClosky said, “They’re not standing in your garden, they’re not ruining your stuff.” 

Barbara Gregory said she has lived in that area since 1989, and that within the past year the drug dealing has gotten worse. “It has become a nightmare living there,” she said. 

The neighbors did not blame the Police Department for the upsurge in drug-related activity, but many wished that officers had stronger means to remove the drug dealers. 

“The police seem too wishy,” Fred Kosentino said. He has lived at 10th and Allston for 22 years and said that he had never witnessed any police brutality. 

Stephanie Ross complained that the city wasn’t giving the police the tools to “get the bad guys.” She said that recently drug dealers from outside her neighborhood set up a barbecue in front of a neighbor’s house to intimidate them. According to Ross the police came, but because nobody’s driveway was blocked, the police were powerless to remove the unwanted visitors. 

The neighbors have an influential voice in their corner. Councilmember Margaret Breland also lives around 10th and Allston, and she was not surprised to see the drug issue dominate the forum. 

“There are people doing donuts at 8 a.m. on a weekday, and that’s when children are going to school,” she said. “Everybody has to watch out for these bugers because they’re smart. They know what time the police are coming and what time they leave.” Breland has scheduled a community meeting for tonight at the Rosa Park Elementary School issue to brainstorm solutions to the drug issue. 

In defending the police several speakers noted that the root causes of the drug problem in West Berkeley are rooted in broader social issues. 

A resident who has lived at 7th street for 45 years insisted that the problems were economic. “We haven’t even come out with a plan to send them to school, she said. 

Breland agreed. “We can’t keep putting kids in jail. They don’t care if they live or die. They’re so discouraged, they’re giving up on life,” she said. 

Although the drug issue dominated the forum, some speakers did express concern about what they believed was excessive police violence. 

Siobhan Wilson, a resident of the UA Homes, a single room occupancy hotel at 1040 University shared her experience with police officers who said they had gotten a tip that she was dealing drugs. “They destroyed my room, she said. “ They even slashed open my suitcases. I had never seen anything like it,” said Wilson who currently has a complaint filed against the police.  

According to Carla James of Copwatch, a community organization that monitors police behavior, there has been an upsurge of complaints 

filed against police action in West Berkeley. “Our phone has been ringing off the hook,” said James, who commented that she knew of several residents who had filed complaints against the police, but were too intimidated to attend the forum.  

Police Chief Butler defended the actions of his department.  

“The SEU (Special Enforcement Unit) is the difference between this and carnage in the streets. We have to take an aggressive posture,” Butler said.  

According to Butler the police were beginning to win the battle at 10th and Allston. “Over the last 24 hours my guys in the SEU have been able to do a bunch of things now that they couldn’t do a couple of years ago,” he said.