Council Discusses Crime with South and West Berkeley Residents

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 30, 2008 - 09:44:00 AM

If crime figures presented to the Berkeley City Council Tuesday by Berkeley Police Department Chief Doug Hambleton are anything to go by, property crime—which includes burglaries, car thefts and arson—in the city has declined since the 1970s. 

However, the public’s fear about it, statistics notwithstanding, continues to rise. 

Hambleton blamed the information age—particularly the evening news channels—for installing paranoia in people about incidents taking place thousands of miles away but was quick to acknowledge that violent crime—which includes homicides, rapes, robbery and aggravated assault—was up. 

To the two dozen or so South Berkeley residents who witnessed a sudden spurt in neighborhood shootings this September, the graphs and numbers indicating a decrease in crime meant little, they told the council, during what turned out to be a two and a half hour discussion about community safety in South and West Berkeley, headed by Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna. 

At the council meeting Tuesday, Caronna along with Hambleton, Neighborhood Services Liaison Angela Gallegos-Castillo and Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Director William Rogers presented a report about what the city was doing to address citizen’s concerns about the shootings, which left two people dead and one injured last month. 

The homicides, which occurred near Sacramento and Derby streets, were followed by two more shootings, which did not result in any injuries. It is currently unclear whether the shootings were related. 

“It’s not fear, it’s real,” said Berkeley resident Laura Menard, cheered on by twenty others who testified throughout the course of the evening about poor street lights, overgrown trees, trash and gang problems in South and West Berkeley. 

One home owner compared the area to that of West Side Story, while others complained that they were tired of seeing city officials neglect South West Berkeley over the years. 

“I have made 25 calls to the Berkeley Police Department and my most recent 911 call was not answered,” said Berkeley resident Mark Johnson, who recently bought a house in West Berkeley. 

“I have had my car vandalized and my garden turned into a pass-through for drug traffickers. We would like to know what your plans are on turning some of this around. I came to Berkeley for diversity, but it turned into a nightmare.” 

Gerard Carleton, another West Berkeley resident, said residents were tired of getting lip service from city officials. 

“Nobody wants to come forward with any solutions,” he said. “The time is now to change the rules of the game.” 

Hambleton said that statistics indicate violent crime in the city had been down in 2004 but has gone up since then, noting that there had been a spike in robberies over the last few years. 

Figures for this year show that the property crime rate in Berkeley is fairly stable so far but that the violent crime rate is on the rise, with the city averaging 50 robberies every month. 

Aggravated assaults are also down compared to last year. 

Mayor Tom Bates asked if the rise in robberies was a nationwide trend, given the current economic slump. 

“There has been a national rise in robberies,” Hambleton said. 

“The crime rate in Berkeley overall is low compared to the 1980s and 1990s. However, that’s not much of a comfort to people. It doesn’t make the situation acceptable.” 

He said the Berkeley Police Department had plans to use two bike cops in the South Berkeley corridor after the double homicide in September. 

“The initial reaction after the homicide was to increase patrol,” he said. “Officers were asked to spend more of their free time in that neighborhood, do more walking in that area. We have got a lot of feedback from South Berkeley but we still have a ways to go.” 

The shootings have led to existing neighborhood watch groups becoming more active and two new ones being formed, Hambleton said, adding that it was a positive sign. 

Berkeley currently has around 157 registered neighborhood watch groups of which only eight meet on a regular basis, he said. 

“We are asking people to light up their porch lights,” he said. “We are getting PG&E to donate compact fluorescent lights, which we will give to neighbors if they agree to keep their porch lights on.” 

Rogers told the council that the city’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Division was working with the Public Works Department to identify problem areas in dire need of tree pruning or better lighting. 

“Many street trees result in blocking light,” Rogers said, pointing out that so far the list included 23 streets in South Berkeley, which contained of 350 trees. 

“Trimming them may ensure more light. We want to make sure there is enough light.” 

Claudette Ford, the city’s public works director, said her department would be repairing street lights spread across 78 locations in South Berkeley. 

The Berkeley Police Department’s long- term strategies to combat crime include creating smaller beats and sending larger consignments of officers to South and West Berkeley neighborhoods. 

There is also a possibility that the department’s beats will be reassessed in the near future. 

The department’s Special Enforcement Unit makes an average of 33 arrests every month, Hambleton said. 

“We need to get guns off the street because they are killing people,” said Councilmember Max Anderson. “We need to promote peer-to-peer activity and not treat youth as aliens. We need to give them meaningful employment, not just get them locked up.” 

Gallegos-Castillo told the council that the city was making coordinated efforts to involve young people in academic and after-school job programs and offer year-round sports, playgrounds, summer camps, and teen programs, including youth development programs such as the Youth Commission and the Voices Against Violence program. 

Parks and Recreation currently spends $6.7 million on youth programs and the city’s Youth Employment Program works on a budget of $1.1 million. 

“We are constantly looking for ways to do outreach and market our program,” Gallegos-Castillo said. “We really do have a good program, but we need to get it out there.” 

The biggest moment of truth in the council meeting arrived when Councilmember Moore, who is responsible for West Berkeley, asked Hambleton if gangs really existed in Berkeley. 

“Community members talk about gangs, but I have heard different answers from the Police Department,” he said. “Do gangs exist in Berkeley?” 

Hambleton acknowledged that gangs were present in Berkeley and went on to elaborate about Hispanic gangs in West Berkeley and other gangs in South Berkeley. 

“You can see it from the graffiti, but you don’t get the level of activities in the Bay Area as you do in other communities,” he said. 

“It’s not as violent.” 

A number of people complained about illegal dumping in South Berkeley, which they said brought unwanted furniture and trash to the neighborhood. 

“It’s OK to break the rules or ignore the rules because no one cares about South West Berkeley,” said a neighbor. 

Councilmembers later asked city staff to look at ways to revitalize the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Council and research the option of using cameras to monitor the streets. 

“In my six years on the council, this is the first time we had a serious discussion on crime,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak. 

“We’d rather have a discussion on free speech or some problems in a galaxy far far away. We have a zero-waste goal and a climate change plan but we don’t have a crime prevention plan. Crime is as serious as climate change. People don’t feel safe in their homes.” 

The city manager’s office is scheduled to return with a report on violent crimes in Berkeley and a comprehensive plan on community safety on Jan. 27. 

Contact for South and West Berkeley Community Safety: 

Neighborhood Services Liaison Angela Gallegos-Castillo, phone: 981-2491 and Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna, phone: 981-7000 

Community members can call the Berkeley Public Works Department at 981-6620 to complain about street lights that are not working.