Public Comment

Parties in Berkeley: Reducing Risks

By Tim Hansen
Thursday April 16, 2009 - 06:43:00 PM

Given the problems associated with the Jan. 30 party at the Gaia Building (“Another Gaia Building Riot—With Gun Fire,” Daily Planet, Feb. 4), it is appropriate and timely to take a step back and examine how we as a community address the social needs of our younger members. It is natural for people to seek social interaction with other people. This is particularly true for younger people. The type of interaction is varied, but parties usually play an important role. As with all social interactions, there are risks. It is appropriate for city officials—within the bounds of their authority—to attempt to reduce the risks. 

One approach to reducing risk is to attempt to reduce the number of parties or eliminate them altogether. This approach has the drawback that it may actually make those parties that do happen much more prone to overcrowding and its associated problems, leading to increased risks. As parties become less frequent because city officials have shut down venues or otherwise forbidden them, those parties that do happen become more important in the eyes of the attendees. Modern communications—text messaging, Twitter, group email, instant messaging, posting on Facebook—makes it so that, when a party does happen, the people who attend can very quickly pass the word on, and the crowd can grow very quickly. This is called a flash crowd, and it’s how things can get out of hand. If there were more parties, they wouldn’t be news, and consequently there wouldn’t be the flash crowds that the city is currently experiencing. Eliminate parties altogether and you will probably still get flash crowds, just totally unstructured. Bottom line: Efforts to eliminate parties can lead to greater risk associated with those events that do happen.  

A better approach to reducing risk would be to work with potential party venues—road houses, fraternities and sororities, churches and other groups—to establish procedures to follow when hosting a party or other event. The city could even provide workshops and facilitate training of house managers, security guards and party planners. Once a community goes down the road of attempting to eliminate parties instead of better managing them, it is difficult to change course, because institutions are not built back quickly. I believe that city officials who choose eliminating parties over helping people better manage them do a grave disservice to their communities and in the end make their constituents less safe.  

In Berkeley, it is no secret that city officials have already gone the route of eliminating parties. With the Gaia Building problems, city officials appear to be following the rules. Unfortunately, with others, they have sometimes used underhanded means of accomplishing their agenda. Instead of a nuisance abatement proceeding, they use code enforcement in unexpected ways to try to drive the target out of business or at least stop the parties. These officials have set themselves up as the judge, jury, and executioner and often abuse their authority and deny their targets their rights under due process. They make unlawful demands and misapply the codes. Their actions often are unethical, immoral, and illegal.  

This kind of behavior is not uncommon. Recently, in Oakland, 11 police officers were fired for lying in their efforts to secure search warrants. (See “Oakland to Fire 11 Cops in Search Warrant Case,” San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 16.) It is interesting to note the wide range of responses to the eleven officers’ behavior. The assistant police chief called it “procedural errors,” as if it was unimportant. A spokesperson for the victims described it as a number of rogue officers who were basically trampling on the rights of Oakland residents. The Oakland city attorney said, “These terminations are difficult for the city, but they show that honesty and integrity are non-negotiable for officers in the Oakland Police Department.” An independent monitoring team, created to monitor the Oakland Police Department (OPD) in the wake of the West Oakland Riders scandal said, “the underlying misconduct, if true, is clear indication that the organizational and community values that have been integrated into some parts of the department have not yet taken root throughout OPD.” 

Oakland was right to fire the 11 officers. Their actions cause mistrust in the community for the OPD and government as a whole. They are now viewed as abusive and corrupt, which makes it much harder for the department to address community problems. Taking illegal shortcuts to an end causes more problems in the long run than the short cut is worth. Honesty and integrity should also be non-negotiable in Berkeley code enforcement. 

One has to question how organizational and community values are integrated into Berkeley code enforcement. The city should undergo a review of the following properties to determine if there has been misconduct: the Dredge (Drayage, 651 Addison St.), Shipyard (1010 Murray St.), Iceland (2727 Milvia St.), The Crucible (1036 Ashby St.), The Hillside Club (2286 Cedar St.), and all UC Berkeley fraternities and sororities.  


Tim Hansen is a Berkeley contractor.