Downtown Berkeley ambassador assault. Image: Bryan Hamilton
Image: Bryan Hamilton

A Downtown Berkeley Association ambassador assaulted a homeless man Thursday evening behind CVS in what appears to be a violent incident that was captured on video. That homeless man and an associate were arrested by the Berkeley Police Department before the video came to light. After reviewing the video this week, police asked the district attorney’s office to take another look at the case.

The ambassador involved, whose name has not been released, will be fired Thursday, said Downtown Berkeley Association CEO John Caner. A second ambassador, who did not intervene to stop the apparent assault, will be suspended. The video, which appears below, contains graphic language and violence that some viewers may find disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.

Lance Gorée, operations manager for the DBA, and the manager of the ambassador program for contractor Block by Block, said he received a report of the physical contact last week, but the severity of the incident was not made clear until he and Caner saw the video Thursday morning.

“I was called within the hour of it happening,” Gorée said. “I always get called right away. They didn’t fully represent what happened.”

“It’s clearly totally unacceptable,” said Caner. “We apologize to (the victim) and to the community. This is clearly so out of the realm of acceptable behavior and totally contrary to all of the training provided to ambassadors.”

YouTube video

The incident, according to the video, escalated from a verbal disagreement to a series of punches by the ambassador. It took place around 7 p.m. Thursday, March 19, in the alleyway behind the CVS on the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Bancroft Way. Bryan Hamilton posted the video on YouTube on Sunday.

According to Berkeley Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Coats, the two homeless men — ages 23 and 29 — were arrested Thursday on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and making criminal threats. When police saw the video Wednesday, Coats said, they informed investigators and notified the District Attorney’s office.

(Neither man remains in custody, according to the Alameda County sheriff’s department.)

Berkeleyside has asked the Alameda County District Attorney’s office for an update.

According to Gorée, ambassadors are taught to “disengage whenever possible and to de-escalate whenever possible.” He said the organization has detailed protocols for dealing with, and reporting, violent incidents.

There have been four other incidents this year that involved physical contact, Gorée said, but none of that contact was initiated by ambassadors.

Read more about homelessness in Berkeley.

Gorée and Caner both said there are clear instructions for ambassadors to call police if incidents get out of their control.

The downtown ambassador program, funded by the Downtown Business Improvement District, was started in April 2012, and there are currently 13 ambassadors working downtown.

Some homeless advocates have criticized the program as providing a private enforcement unit responsive to business concerns rather than to the broader community.

Update, 2:25 p.m. In a statement released by the Downtown Berkeley Association on Thursday afternoon, Caner said the involved staff members submitted a report about last Thursday’s incident that “did not represent the extent and severity of the altercation, describing the event as an act of self-defense by the ambassador. Block by Block and the DBA were not made aware of the true nature of the altercation until viewing the YouTube video this morning.”

He said the association is cooperating with the police investigation.

Block by Block president Blair McBride issued the following statement Thursday afternoon. It appears below in full.

This past week an incident occurred between two of our Block-By-Block Ambassadors and a known member of the Berkeley street population. The uncalled-for response by these Ambassadors has angered and appalled us deeply, and we apologize to this person, to the Berkeley community and to its leaders for the actions of these two individuals.

What happened is intolerable. The attacker has been terminated and his partner has been suspended pending an internal investigation. We are also cooperating with law enforcement officials as they continue their own investigation.

We have built our company on the caliber and professionalism of our Ambassadors.  We carefully screen any Ambassador candidate to ensure that the best possible individuals—in terms of background, skills and character—are hired to serve our clients.  We then train them extensively to respond and to react to a variety of situations and with a cross-section of the business district’s population.   Their fundamental charge is to engage all our residents with the highest level of respect and dignity.

Block-By-Block has been the service partner of the Downtown Berkeley Association since 2012.  While we are disappointed in the actions of these two people, we and our Berkeley Ambassador team remain committed to serving the Downtown Berkeley Association—and everyone in this community—with the professionalism and respect they deserve.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated as new information was gathered, including information from the Berkeley Police Department. In addition, sources initially said this incident took place Friday, March 20, but Berkeleyside discovered through court papers that it actually took place Thursday, March 19. The story has been corrected.

Op-ed: In Berkeley, how much tolerance is too much? (03.23.15)
Berkeley council votes to curb impacts of homelessness (03.18.15)
Berkeley to grapple again with homeless on sidewalks (03.16.15)
Downtown ambassadors help, monitor homeless (07.02.12)

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...