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Neighbors Share Concerns at Police ‘Murder Meeting’

Friday July 30, 2004

Nearly 50 anxious South Berkeley residents crowded into a room at the Young Adult Project on Oregon Street Tuesday night to hear a police update on the city’s first murder of the year and share their concerns with police, city officials and each other. 

Mario “Tip-Toe” Jackson died after a gunman opened fire as he stood in the driveway adjacent to the 1317 Ashby Ave. apartment building where his grandmother lives. 

Following the shooting, the gunman leapt into a car—described by police as a light blue four-door sedan—and sped away, heading west on Burnett Street. 

The mortally wounded Jackson stumbled toward Ashby, where police found him collapsed in the front yard and bleeding from multiple wounds soon after callers flooded the 911 lines with reports of gunshots. 

Sgt. Steve Odom of the department’s Community Services Bureau opened the meeting by introducing Homicide Detectives Robert Rittenhouse and Sgt. Howard Nonoguchi and Officers Shira Warren and Spencer Fomby, coordinators for southwest and south central Berkeley. 

The detectives offered a sketchy account of the crime that revealed less than previously published newspaper reports, then fielded questions. 

Asked if drugs played any part in the shooting, Rittenhouse declined to say—nor would he say if Jackson told officers anything in the minutes they struggled to save his life before paramedics arrived. 

With five months remaining in the year, Rittenhouse said, crimes of violence were down in Berkeley, where five murders were recorded in 2003, seven in 2002. So far the city is tied with 2001’s single homicide. 

The one bit of real news was the $15,000 reward the city has offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer. 

Then Warren and Fomby took over, addressing specific community concerns. 

Warren, intense and articulate, acknowledged one woman’s concern about safety in the immediate neighborhood where the ambush took place. 

“Once you’ve had an incident like this, you should be more aware,” she said, recommending that neighbors contact the Community Services Bureau to arrange for a presentation of the department’s safety program. 

The focus of violence can move around, Rittenhouse added, “but certainly after an incident like this there is cause for concern.” 

Another woman raised her hand to tell the officers that “my son is now in Los Angeles because of all this violence between North Oakland and South Berkeley.” 

“Are you planning any kind of beef-up in this area?” added another neighbor. 

“We’ve already beefed up our patrols and brought in two-officer cars, and we’re planning further action,” said the more laconic Fomby, coordinator for the area where the crime occurred. “Whenever we have a violent action in Berkeley we make that the highest priority.” 

Another woman said she was concerned about an increase in tennis shoes dangling from the utility wires in the area, asking “Is that really a sign of drug activity?” 

“That’s more of an urban legend,” Fomby said. “It’s never been a sign that an area is becoming hot or a drug area.” 

While several speakers complained about police inaction in the past, almost all the speakers acknowledged that police performance and community relations had improved greatly in recent years. 

Laura Menard, an outspoken neighborhood anti-crime activist who lives a short walk away from the crime scene, said “police response has improved. They get here faster and with more sirens.” 

Her concern was with the public health aspects of violent crimes. “Last year I was standing right across the street when a drug dealer was shot. That kind of stress is what makes the kids want to warrior-up.” 

A man asked “Has the City of Berkeley ever thought about putting surveillance cameras in high crime areas?” 

The answer came from the sidelines, where Capt. Stephanie Fleming, chief of the Community Services Bureau, sat perched on a low cabinet. “Cameras like Big Brother won’t happen in this city,” she said. “The voters just won’t tolerate any type of Big Brother issue. . .maybe sometime down the line.” 

Why didn’t police go after loiterers, asked another woman. 

“Unfortunately, in Berkeley there is no loitering law,” said Warren. 

Asked how residents should treat suspicious incidents, Fomby said he tells people that if something happens at night and it isn’t urgent, “wait until the next day and call your area coordinator rather than call the dispatch center right away,” lest the system bog down. 

“I came here from Oakland, and I’ve got to say this department really jumped on this crime,” volunteered a woman from the audience. “They really deserve our support.” 

The audience broke into applause. 

“You’ve got to stay vigilant,” added Capt. Fleming. “You need to let us know what’s happening in the community. Call the dispatch center (911) if it’s urgent, call the area coordinator with information, and call the Special Enforcement Unit”—which Fleming heads—“when narcotics are involved.” 

Other audience members wondered how the ongoing city budget crisis would affect community policing. 

“Staffing and patrol will be our priorities,” Fomby said. 

Another woman offered more praise for the department. 

“I live three buildings from where it happened, and the police were there in less than three minutes,” she said. “I saw him take two steps and fall down, and where I got out of my house there were already lots of people there.” 

Then Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who had been quietly standing off to one side, stepped forward to introduce another woman in the audience, his council colleague Maudelle Shirek. The audience applauded. 

More introductions followed: Lt. Allen Yuen of the Special Enforcement Bureau, Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna, Calvin Fong of Mayor Tom Bates’ office, West Berkeley Liaison Michael Kaplan and representatives of a half dozen neighborhood organizations. 

“If anyone heard or saw anything, or knows anyone who saw anything, please let us know about it,” implored Councilmember Worthington as the meeting ended. 

Callers can reach the Homicide Detail at 981-5741 and should refer to case number 04-41412, or send an e-mail toª