Beneath the heated rhetoric and sharp divisions, one fact emerged from a Monday night meeting between Berkeley police, city officials and residents: The desire for a police force that is engaged with the community on a day-to-day basis.
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 packed the community room at San Pablo Park’s Frances Albrier Community Center both to hear from officialdom and to vent their frustrations in the wake of a pair of murders and a rash of subsequent shootings in southwest Berkeley.
While many of the complaints fell along racial fault lines, the common thread in the concerns was anxiety about personal safety, with threats perceived both from young men often connected with gangs and the drug trade and from law enforcement officers themselves, viewed with distrust as an occupying force.
There was a heavy police presence both at the meeting and during the candlelight vigil and march that preceded it down the streets from a sidewalk-side shrine for one of the dead shooting victims on Derby Street near the corner of Sacramento Street to the gathering place in the park.
But of the seven uniformed police at the front of the room, only one was African American, a point noted by more than one speaker.
Four city councilmembers attended, though only three—area representatives Max Anderson and Darryl Moore along with Mayor Tom Bates—sat at the speakers’ table, while Gordon Wozniak watched from the audience.
The immediate cause for Monday’s meeting was the exchange of gunfire on Derby Street in the opening minutes of Thursday morning that left Kelvin Earl Davis, a 23-year-old Berkeley man, mortally wounded along the curbside and 42-year-old Oakland resident Kevin Antoine Parker dead nearby behind the wheel of his wrecked car.
Berkeley Police Chief Douglas Hambleton said the department’s “very strict policy” barred the release of detailed information about the results of an ongoing investigation, but Lt. Andrew Greenwood offered some details both about the double killings and the shootings that have followed.
Greenwood said police had arrived at the scene within three minutes of the first 911 call, and that upwards of 40 officers responded in the early phases of the case.
“Our sense is that these two people were the focus of an attack. That essentially defines where we’re at,” he said.
Three hours later, a neighborhood house was hit by at least one bullet. “We are unclear whether it was purposefully hit,” he said, or whether it was struck incidental to another event that may have been happening on the street.
The next shooting followed at 10:15 p.m. Thursday night, when a woman taking out the trash from her residence across the street from the scene of the double murders was shot in the abdomen. Though seriously wounded, she is expected to recover, Greenwood said.
More than 20 officers responded in that incident, with the first arriving within two-and-a-half minutes of the first call, he said. The target in that incident may have been the crowd that had gathered around the memorial where Monday night’s march began.
Yet another shooting followed at 9:04 a.m. Friday in the 1400 block of Russell Street. Greenwood said no one had yet come forward to offer information about that shooting.
“This is a citywide problem,” said Max Anderson, who represents western South Berkeley. “In the early part of the ‘90s there was a fire in the hills that was threatening our community,” he said. “Now there’s a fire in the flatlands that’s threatening out community. We need to extinguish that fire. We need to find some solutions.”
“We want to take back the streets,” said Moore, who represents southern West Berkeley.
“Two homicides is two too many,” said the mayor. “We also can’t tolerate not being safe on the streets.”
Hambleton said the department is “trying to make the city as safe as possible” buy adding additional patrols and overtime to patrol the area while encouraging officers assigned to other areas of the city to come to the troubled neighborhoods when they need to spend time writing their reports or when otherwise able to spend time in the area.
The chief said that because of “the direct connection between violence and drugs,” the department has 13 officers and support personnel assigned to the department's drug unit and has been implementing neighborhood watch programs.
One strong area of divisions emerging from the public discussion was the response to the impromptu memorials that are erected along the streets in the wake of shootings. The tableaux that result often feature empty liquor bottles and gang graffiti, and Hambleton said he was also concerned because of drinking that occurs among those who gather at the site.
Police policy is to order the removal of the objects after 48 hours if they’re on public property—or sooner if complaints arise. “But we don’t have jurisdiction over private property,” he said, adding that police had recently worked with property owners over several memorials in the area.
While some in the audience urged a strict no-memorial policy, others agreed with a woman who called out, “We need our memorials!”
One 12-year resident of the same block that had seen the two murders and the shooting at the memorial said she had attended a very similar meeting five years earlier, called after a neighborhood boy “was shot off his bike.”
“Each time there’s a meeting, there’s this great promise there’ll be extra police,” she said. She said she was also concerned “because there’s drug dealing going on all over Sacramento Street,” with no police action even though both officers and community members are aware of it.
But another man said police “just don’t treat the young men with respect,” adding to the officers on hand, “Don’t be racist pigs.” Still, he said, he had seen “a lot of progress” in police attitudes.
While much of the discussion followed racial lines, there were no hard and fast rules, as indicated by the remarks of two African American woman who spoke in succession.
The first, who identified herself as the aunt of one of the murder victims, said she had been repeatedly harassed by police, as had her nephew, telling officers, “I blame you all for my nephew’s death.”
But she was followed by another woman, also African American, who said, “Nowadays we are afraid of our own children.”
Angry shouts and loud applause punctuated the meeting as speaker after speaker rose to address the crowd, and at one point Bates literally tried to call “Time out! Time out!”
One of the most poignant comments came from a young African American man who said he had been raised in a house police designated a crack house by a mother who was hooked on the drug. Describing himself as a “terror” during childhood, he said he was rescued by the mother of a classmate—“a white lady from the Berkeley Hills.” With her help, he said, he had turned his life around, graduating form high school with honors and going on to win a psychology degree from Tuskegee.
And the one clear consensus emergency from the meeting was the call for a police presence that was constant, trustworthy and familiar—and not just a surge dispatched to fight the emergency of the moment, as well as the need for a deeper and ongoing communication between members of a deeply divided community struggling with the specter of rising violence.
Berkeley has seen so many homicides this year that police press releases have stopped offering a year-to-date total.
In the years since 1998, the highest number of homicides for the city until this year was logged in 2002, when seven people died at the hands of others. The lowest number was recorded in 2001, with a single homicide listed by the FBI. The total for 2007 was five.
The 2002 figure had been matched by the end of May—or exceeded by one if an officer-involved fatal shooting is added to the total. There have been three murders since.