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Berkeley Guides provide city with important service

By Chris Nichols Daily Planet Staff
Thursday June 27, 2002

Wearing bright blue jackets, patrol radios and cheerful smiles, the Berkeley Guides do more than just walk up and down Shattuck Avenue. The four-member team, working in connection with the Berkeley Police Department, patrol the busy downtown merchant sector of Shattuck Avenue Tuesday through Saturday.  

As one of their basic functions, the guides maintain contact with local stores and street vendors, assisting them with customer complaints and contacting police when necessary. In addition, the guides provide citizens and downtown visitors with directions, maps and information.  

According to many local merchants, the guides provide an essential service. “They really helped diffuse a bad situation the other day,” said Mostafa Hallaji of Newberry’s Gifts. “We had a customer that was upset about a pager that she bought. One of them took her outside and calmed her down and the other one came and talked to me.”  

Despite their helpful presence downtown and a strong reaction from merchants and city officials, the Berkeley Guides patrol program faces an uncertain future due to budget constraints. Founded in 1995 as a part of Measure O, the program originally staffed nine members and ran Monday through Saturday day and night along the Avenue. 

According to Ove Wittstock, director of Berkeley Guides, the program is asking for $30,000 in additional city funding to meet rising costs, including increased medical and workers compensation fees.  

Wittstock says that the program hopes members of downtown’s merchant community will help support the guides. As a former Berkeley merchant himself, Wittstock understands the importance of safety in downtown. 

“We hope to take this to the people who have a stake in this, the merchants and the school district, to have them place an economic value on what these guys do on a daily basis,” said David Manson, Executive Director of the Berkeley Boosters, the parent organization of Berkeley Guides. 

Deborah Badhia, Executive Director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, says that the guide program is one piece of a complicated puzzle of policy, presence and enforcement in the downtown area. “The guides are a piece of the puzzle as are police and as is policy,” Badhia said. She says that additional resources such as the mobile crisis team and homeless centers are also necessary parts of keeping downtown safe for everyone.  

According to Roy Meisner, Deputy Chief of the Berkeley Police Department, the guides provide the city with an important service. "They're ambassadors for the city and for the people who shop and eat in downtown. The other part is that they're able to answer questions and give directions to places like UC. They've been a big boost," Meisner said. "They're the ones that hear about all of the things going on down there and they let us know if there's a problem." 

For many the guides provide a link between the community and the police. Guides Lashawn Nolen and Jay Elliot have each served Berkeley for several years and have built relationships and trust with both citizens and the police department. For those who might not be willing to speak directly to a police officer about a problem, the guides are there.  

"People don't feel that threat. We're in between. They know we're not cops but we still have jobs to do,” said Berkeley Guide John Lara. According to Lara, problems on the street can often be resolved with a bit of patience and friendly advice from a guide. Lara says that the guides are able to deal with situations, such disputes between customers and local vendors that police officers do not always have time for.  

Though some have criticized the Berkeley Guides program for not doing enough to eradicate the homeless problem downtown, others say that citizens must realize the limits of the program. “It’s important for people to understand what they can do and what they cannot do,” Badhia said. “The guides aren’t police officers.” 

Despite the fact that the guides are trained to handle numerous problem situations including natural disasters, animal control and parking backups, they are not able to detain individuals involved in violent crimes.  

When a violent crime does take place, the guides radio the police and often monitor the situation or follow a suspect from a safe distance. After hearing a report on his patrol radio recently, Lara was able to spot and follow an armed robbery suspect to the downtown BART station where he called police. According to Lara, the suspect was arrested shortly after contacting the police. 

Along with the Berkeley Guides, the Boosters also operate a winter BART escort program and provide supervision of after-school programs at three local middle schools.  

The guides program was established in reaction to the wave of violent crime in Berkeley and Oakland that followed the Rodney King verdict in the early 1990s.