The safest place to be in Berkeley on Wednesday night last week was likely the community center at San Pablo Park.
No fewer than five uniformed police officers—four from Berkeley and one from Oakland—were on hand for a community meeting on crime called by City Councilmember Darryl Moore.
While the meeting had originally been called to address a series of takeover robberies along the San Pablo Avenue corridor, a pair of shootings the previous Friday night were weighing heavily on the minds of three dozen or so residents in attendance.
On hand to offer short presentations and field questions were two police lieutenants, Andrew Greenwood from Berkeley and Freddie Hamilton of Oakland, BPD Officer and West Berkeley Area Coordinator Andrew Frankel, along with Deputy District Attorney Scott Jackson, Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna and city Neighborhood Services liaison Angela Gallegos-Castillo.
While most of the attendees at Moore’s meeting were white, both the shooters and their victims in Friday’s shootings were—like Moore, Lt. Hamilton and prosecutor Jackson—African American, as is Max Anderson, another city councilmember who sat silently in the audience.
Another audience member who did raise concerns was Dana McDaniel, a Berkeley woman whose 29-year-old son Poitier was critically injured as he walked along an Oakland street just a block outside the Berkeley border.
Less than an hour before that shooting, a block to the north and east on Sacramento Street, another young Berkeley man had been gunned down after he ran into a corner liquor store his brother had just been chased into by a pair of armed men.
“That shooting was a focused incident and not a random act of violence,” Lt. Greenwood told one member of the audience who said one of the brothers had been arrested for assaulting her son.
Lt. Hamilton said Oakland police couldn’t talk about the second shooting, or any possible Berkeley connections to the shooting of Poitier McDaniel, because of ongoing field investigations.
Responding to criticisms that some witnesses to the Friday night’s first shooting had yet to be interviewed by Berkeley police, Greenwood responded that investigators have had their hands full with two other weekend crimes, including the fatal stabbing of a student at a campus fraternity party five hours later.
“In the murder, we had dozens of witnesses, and it’s a challenging logistical case,” Greenwood said.
In yet another case Wednesday afternoon, police had to cope with a barricaded hostage who was threatening to kill his spouse. Since many of the Berkeley investigators also serve on the hostage negotiation team, yet more resources were diverted from the Sacramento Street shooting, he said.
Another set of violent acts, the takeover robberies, remains enshrouded in another bit of mystery after Berkeley officers first announced and then retracted a declaration that Oakland detectives had arrested a “person of interest” in the crime spree that Berkeley cops were calling “the Lone Gunman.” The name was given to distinguish his crimes from another series of takeover robberies being carried out by a crew.
A takeover robber takes over a business during a robbery, looting not only the cash register but wallets, purses and jewelry of any unfortunate customers who happen to be on hand. The robbers tend to hit toward the end of the business day when cash registers are at their fullest, police said.
The Lone Gunman’s first known Berkeley heist happened on tax day, April 15, when the masked bandit hit Famous Foam Factory at 2397 San Pablo Ave. He was back the next day with a stickup at Eco Home Improvement, 2619 San Pablo.
When he hit Berkeley’s Good Vibrations on the 18th, there were some 30 folks attending a seminar in the 2504 San Pablo Ave. adults-only store, leaving police with a large number of victims to interview.
“In a takeover where there are multiple victims, it becomes immensely complex, but you can’t interview them all at once,” Greenwood said. Instead, witnesses must be questioned individually to forestall legal questions in court.
Police believe he’s the same masked man who later expanded his operations to strike the Subway sandwich shop at 1105 University Ave., just east of San Pablo, on the 29th and to hit two days later the New Economy Laundry at 3200 Sacramento St.
Frankel said he is also suspected of at least three similar crimes in Oakland, two at adult bookstores and one at a bicycle shop.
Because of the mask, the police description is vague: “An African-American male, late teens to late 20s, tall, thin build, wearing dark clothing, baseball or other cap, a mask, and armed with a handgun.”
One concern raised by audience members was the invisible line dividing two different police jurisdictions, one better funded that the other.
Greenwood said Oakland and Berkeley police detectives frequently confer on cases like the takeover robbery sprees, though only Berkeley patrol officers have separate radios so they can listen to calls from officers in the neighboring city.
Oakland’s higher crime rate means officers have less time to respond to specific crimes and, as neighborhood activist Laura Menard noted and police confirmed, guns are used much more frequently in robberies in Oakland compared with Berkeley.
“They don’t have the resources,” Greenwood said of Oakland.
Oakland crimes were very much on the minds of audience members.
“I was robbed in Oakland a year-and-a-half ago,” said one woman. “I never heard back” from police, even though she had a good description of the robber and his car. Lt. Hamilton urged her to call Oakland detectives.
Another woman wondered why her friends who had been robbed in Oakland weren’t given a chance to look at mug shots. “They have a very good description” of the robber, “but no one seemed to be interested.”
Hamilton said detectives normally
didn’t show photos until they already had mug shots available that fit the description.
Greenwood said the whole notion of looking through mug books “is from old movies and television shows.” Berkeley doesn’t even maintain mug books, he said.
“A friend of mine was murdered in Oakland in February,” said another woman in the audience, who was concerned that the suspect might be offered a plea bargain. “How do I find out information from the District Attorney’s office?”
Jackson urged her to call the DA’s office in Oakland and ask what deputy had been assigned the prosecution, adding the reassurance that “generally, no offers are made in homicide cases.”
The prosecutor also urged audience members to write each of the Alameda County Superior Court judges to urge them to take a tough stance on crime. He also faulted the juvenile justice system, saying that when the county eased up on a strict juvenile “reform school” detention model it had eliminated the stick of enforcement needed to confront young criminals with the consequences of their actions.
Mary Lou Van Deventer, one of the founders of Urban Ore, wondered about the criminal flexibility of West Berkeley’s offenders.
The recycling business has been struck repeatedly by burglars in search of metal, and Van Deventer wondered “how likely is it that they are going to switching to gun-toting” banditry?
Greenwood said that criminals are more oriented to turf that to specific modes of crime. “We’ve had Berkeley drug dealers focus on identity theft ... because there’s a lot less attention,” he said.
The bigger dealers use their street crews to hustle bad checks and to front their addresses for mail order goods bought with purloined identity data.
“They decide, I’ll go over to identity theft because there’s a lot less risk,’” he said. “They switch over because it’s a drag to get stopped by the cops,” given that Berkeley officers have a good handle on drug dealer identities and will pull them over whenever they get the chance.
Frankel also offered the department’s services to a merchant who asked if officers had a program to teach retailers and their employees how to respond in robberies.
A popular officer with neighborhood activists, Frankel said he’ll be leaving his West Berkeley assignment this month to take over as the department’s official spokesperson to the press. Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, who currently fields press inquiries, will be moving on to other tasks, said Greenwood.
Moore himself played a low-key role at the meeting, introducing the participants and listening attentively. Wednesday night’s session was merely the latest in a series of crime-focused sessions the councilmember has been holding for his constituents.