Homeless Man Arrested in Civic Center Park Shooting Had Prior Record of Violence

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday September 10, 2009 - 09:30:00 PM

Berkeley police arrested a homeless man in connection with a shooting at Martin Luther King Civic Center Park in downtown Berkeley Sept. 9.  

The man, Richard Jacobs, was previously convicted and served an eight-month prison sentence for stabbing two Berkeley residents on Nov. 13, 2008 at the Marina Liquor store at 1265 University Ave.  

At approximately 9:35 p.m. Wednesday, a gunshot was heard in the vicinity of the park next to Berkeley City Hall. Within minutes at least seven Berkeley police cars, sirens blaring, reached the site and handcuffed six people at the park.   

A woman who had been sleeping in the park ran to the safety of the lawn of the Maudelle Shirek building across Martin Luther King Jr. Way, which also serves as the headquarters of the Berkeley Unified School District. 

“I heard gun shots,” said the woman, who refused to give her name for fear of retribution. “I jumped and got down in the dirt. I was just passing through and I heard the shots. I am from Brooklyn—you hear shots, you get down.”   

District spokesperson Mark Coplan said that the Berkeley Board of Education was in the middle of a meeting when they heard the gunshot. 

“It was very unsettling, almost frightening because you didn’t know what was going on,” he said later. “If it had happened at the other side of the park, we’d have to stop the meeting. I don’t think I have seen anything this crazy in my seven years in the building.” 

At the park Berkeley police officers detained and questioned six people—two of them homeless—about the shooting.  

Berkeley Police Department police officer Sgt. Peter Hong told the Daily Planet at the crime scene that a group of homeless men were arguing in the park when one of them pulled out a handgun and fired a shot in the air.  

“I don’t think he was targeting anybody,” Hong said. “Nobody is hurt. We have him in custody and the firearm as well.”   

At least two Berkeley Fire Department rescue trucks arrived at the scene 30 minutes later and paramedics brought a stretcher to the park. Around 10:24 p.m. paramedics carried a handcuffed man—later identified by Berkeley police as Jacobs—into the van on the stretcher.  

BPD spokesperson Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said that at approximately 9:40 p.m., a Berkeley police officer driving eastbound on Allston Way was flagged down by a woman in Civic Center Park who reported a possible fight in progress.  

The officer drove east on Allston Way and saw what “appeared to be several people actively involved in a heated verbal argument.”   

Kusmiss said the officer used his patrol car’s airhorn in hope of discouraging further violence, after which he got out of his car and detained a man who was with his girlfriend.  

The couple told the officer that a suspect, who was in a wheelchair, had fired a handgun in the air and still had it in his possession.  

Both of them pointed to Jacobs standing near a fountain inside the park. The officers formed a small group and after detaining Jacobs, found a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolver with a six-inch barrel under a blanket on his lap.  

After talking to eye witnesses, the police found out that Jacobs and two other acquaintances were talking in the park when one of them asked Jacobs for a cigarette, at which point the suspect got “enraged” and refused to give him one.  

Jacobs said “Hell no,” and began cursing the acquaintance who asked for a cigarette.  

Jacobs then said, “I got something for you motherfucker,” pulled out the revolver and fired a round into the air.  

“The officers are not certain why he became enraged,” Kusmiss said. Nobody was injured in the shooting, she said.  

Jacobs was arrested on suspicion of discharging a firearm in a grossly negligent manner, possession of a loaded handgun, possession of a concealed handgun and for being a felon in possession of a handgun. He was booked into Santa Rita jail.  

Last November, Jacobs had become angry at a Marina Liquor clerk when he refused to sell him alcohol because Jacobs already seemed pretty intoxicated.  

When a man intervened, Jacobs stabbed him, after which he stabbed another woman who had tried to calm them down. Both victims survived their wounds. Jacobs was booked into Santa Rita Jail for two counts of assault with a deadly weapon.  

Jacobs, 56, did not offer an address to the officers and refused to give a statement for the Civic Center Park incident. Kusmiss said he grew more belligerent during the course of his conversation with the officers.  

When he was told he was under arrest, Jacobs complained of some medical issues for which he was treated at a local hospital, Kusmiss said.  

The individuals detained by the police were released after questioning. They all said they had been scared when Jacobs pulled out a gun.  

Kusmiss said she could not comment on whether Jacobs was mentally challenged.  

She said that officers had been able to respond to the situation quickly because the park was located right across from the Public Safety Building.  

“It’s a bit of an unusual case,” Kusmiss said. “In the course of their duty, officers consistently stop individuals that have handguns in their possession but it’s very rare to have a suspect in a wheelchair who has a handgun. It sounds like in this case the suspect was trying to solve an argument with a weapon which might have had a critical outcome.”  

Kusmiss said Civic Center Park often draws a diverse group of people because of its proximity to the Men’s Overnight Shelter, the Berkeley City Hall and Berkeley High School.  

She said that police monitor public parks in Berkeley for a number of reasons, especially to control wild or drunken behavior.  

“Discharging guns in parks is very uncommon,” she said. “It’s very serious. When you discharge a gun into the air with people nearby, there is a possibility of the round coming down and striking or even killing someone.”  

Kusmiss said that Berkeley police officers would ask prosecutors to issue a stay-away order from Civic Center Park for Jacobs at his hearing.  

Coplan said the school district is not worried that the incident had happened so close to Berkeley High, which is right across the park, because it seemed to be “the exeption, rather than the norm.” 

“Berkeley police do a good job of monitoring the park, and our school staff also keep an eye out,” he said. 

Terrie Light, executive director of the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which runs the Men’s Overnight Shelter in the basement of the Veteran’s Memorial Building next to the park, said she couldn’t comment on whether Jacobs was one of her clients. 

Light said that most of her clients were well behaved and that fights seldom broke out inside the men’s shelter. 

“People are told coming into the shelter that they can’t bring any weapons in with them,” she said. “If they have them, they keep them well hidden. We don’t search their belongings. But our clients know they have to abide by the rules. That’s why some people won’t come inside.”