Residents, city staff and representatives from UC Berkeley met Monday to discuss parties around campus. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Residents, city staff and representatives from UC Berkeley met Monday to discuss parties around campus. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Dozens of concerned neighbors met Monday night at the Berkeley Police Department to strategize about how to cut down on “noisy and drunken disturbances,” particularly in Berkeley’s Southside neighborhood.

The city of Berkeley is working on an ordinance to try to curtail problematic behavior, which has at times taxed the city’s emergency services and overwhelmed its main emergency room. The ordinance has been scheduled twice to come before the Berkeley City Council in recent weeks, but has now been delayed for consideration until the fall to allow stakeholders in the university community to weigh in.

In the interim, the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee — which hosted Monday night’s meeting — is bringing local residents into the discussion. At the end of the meeting, attendees agreed to form a working group to try to ensure that their views and input are part of the city process.

Jim Hynes, assistant to Berkeley’s city manager, told the group of about 30 that the city decided to consider expanding existing laws about mini-dorms to all group living accommodations following media attention to the issue, as well as concerns expressed by the Alta Bates emergency room.

“There were weekends where 50-75% of their emergency beds were filled with drunk students,” he said, forcing the hospital to divert other incoming patients to Highland and Summit hospitals in Oakland. “There were times when they couldn’t divert, and had to set up, essentially, disaster triage areas for drunk students.”

A student is taken care of by BFD. Image: ABC 7’s I-Team
Berkeley paramedics take care of a student who had been drinking, in this file photo from 2013. Image: ABC 7’s I-Team

From January 2014 through April 15 of this year, Hynes said there were 85 emergency room transports by ambulance from the Southside area: 20 from fraternities, 44 from Cal residence halls, three from cooperative housing, none from sororities, and 18 from apartments and houses. Hynes noted Tuesday that it’s generally understood that students in the residence halls “access alcohol through the fraternity parties.” Of the 85 transports, 30 patients were minors, he added.

Last fall, two students died in alcohol-related fatalities near campus, according to the city. On Nov. 20, a UC Davis student was found dead after a large party at Zeta Psi, an unaffiliated fraternity on Bancroft Way. A month later, a 20-year-old UC Berkeley student from San Ramon died from head trauma after falling down a flight of stairs outside his home on Piedmont Avenue.

“It is reported that 95% of all injuries and deaths at Fraternities nationwide are alcohol- or drug-related,” according to a recent city staff report.

In addition to concerns about drinking, sexual assault reports at Cal were also a factor, said Hynes. In 2013, there were 33 incidents reported on campus or nearby, many of which were linked to drinking at Cal. At least nine sexual assaults were reported in the campus area in the first two months of the 2014-15 school year. The city noted, in the recent staff report, that “These include five individuals who allege they were drugged and sexually assaulted at one fraternity in October 2014.”

Hynes explained that both the sororities and coops have people on site who function as managers, which is likely to cut down on problematic behavior. For that reason, the proposed ordinance under consideration would require group living facilities to have a resident manager who lives on site.

Under the current proposal, the resident manager would be responsible for keeping trash and recycling neat; setting up a regular, written, maintenance schedule; responding to complaints within 24 hours; keeping a 2-year log of complaints and resolutions; and keeping the property in compliance with municipal codes about unruly parties, nuisances and rules currently required of mini-dorms.

A slew of other rules are proposed, related to neighbor notification about large events, security, roof access, party hours, alcohol, party size and various other issues.

Calls for service regarding loud parties or noise, from April 27, 2014, to April 26, 2015. (Click for the full BPD presentation.) Source: Berkeley Police Department
Police calls for service regarding loud parties or noise, from April 27, 2014, to April 26, 2015. There were 3,549 calls in a one-year period. (Click for the full BPD presentation.) Source: Berkeley Police Department

Monday night, Dylan Howser — a coordinator focused on fraternities and sororities for Cal leadership group the LEAD Center — told those in attendance that the CalGreeks community’s Interfraternity Council has already taken steps to address the problem.

In a March 4 letter outlining those steps, Harry Le Grande, UC vice chancellor of student affairs, wrote that, as a result, “alcohol incidents and transports have fallen substantially.”

Vaibhev Loomba. Photo: Vaibhev Loomba/Facebook
Vaibhev Loomba died at Zeta Psi in November. Photo: Vaibhev Loomba/Facebook

After the death at Zeta Psi, Howser said the council put a two-week moratorium on sanctioned social events at fraternities, and ruled that no alcohol stronger than 20% would be allowed in common areas. He said the group had upped its monitoring of compliance with its rules, imposed escalating fees for violations, and had fined 6-7 fraternities found with hard alcohol in public areas. He said there are now stiffer requirements related to alcohol and safety education, as well.

Prior to those measures, according to the Le Grande letter, there were 18 alcohol-related incidents over two weeks, with 12 people taken to the hospital, an average of nine incidents and six transports per week. In the two weeks that followed, there were seven incidents, with five transports. Over the first six weeks of the spring semester, there were 21 alcohol incidents, with 14 transports: an average of 3.5 incidents and 2.3 transports per week.

Attendees Monday night learned from former Cal Professor Fried Wittman about steps other university and college communities have taken to cut down on problems related to drinking and parties. (See a copy of Wittman’s presentation, which is primarily an overview of his work to address similar problems in Santa Barbara.)

Officer Jessyca Nabozny, of the Berkeley Police Department, explained, too, how she works with the university police and the Berkeley Fire Department, as well as representatives from the fraternities and the athletics department, to coordinate their education and enforcement efforts.

Nabozny — area coordinator for the Southside neighborhood — told attendees that one key element of her approach is to try to make students understand the impact of their behavior, through “frank conversations” about drinking.

“They’re still in their own bubble and they think their actions don’t cause reactions,” she said. “We’re trying to get them to understand that it’s a domino effect: Your actions can cause a reaction to the city — so how do we change this?”

Berkeley firefighter and paramedic Kristin Tucker — who formed the group Every Bear Goes Home three years ago to try to help teach students about a range of college survival skills — said, as a result of the education that’s been happening, she has seen some good behavioral changes. She gave two examples: Intoxicated students have been put by friends in the “recovery position” while waiting for paramedics. In other instances, students are “acting more appropriately” after the fire alarm goes off. And those are steps, she said, in the right direction.

It’s unrealistic to imagine the eradication of all alcohol-related ambulance transports, she said, adding, “The best thing we can do is try to educate, and try to keep it down to a dull roar rather than a conflagration.”

Local residents in attendance said they appreciate the efforts already underway, which they said deserve more attention. But they also expressed concern about whether the city would be able to deal effectively with the problem going forward, and said the various efforts need to be looked at more comprehensively and include neighborhood input.

They said more stringent enforcement is needed if behavior is actually going to change, and said focusing on getting property owners on board will be a critical component of success.

Some of that is already happening. The Willard Neighborhood Association has been working with the university, for example, to make sure lease agreements include rules about appropriate behavior, which can bring property owners into the loop to help require good behavior. Attendees Monday night said those steps need to happen more broadly.

Phil Bokovoy, of the Southside Neighborhood Consortium, said the city should look into requiring the property owners of group living accommodations to get a license, which could raise money for enforcement of the municipal code going forward.

Neighbors said enforcement of any new law, and existing rules, is going to be critical to address problematic behavior. Many dinged the city and university for failing to use the tools it already has, whether because of a policy approach or due to limited resources.

Local resident Yolanda Huang was particularly frustrated about the lack of enforcement.

“UC does not enforce the Student Code of Conduct. Fraternities willfully choose to break those rules and there are no consequences,” she said. “There has to be a penalty to the property manager, which is the alumni association that owns the property. Until you do that, they’re not going to change.”

Dean Metzger said, during his 52 years in Berkeley, he has taken part in at least four different groups that tried unsuccessfully to address the party issue. He said he had come to believe that the university needs to direct more resources toward addressing the problem, and the city needs to step up its enforcement. He said the ordinance that is currently proposed seemed to be good in concept, but said it wouldn’t mean anything without additional resources.

“Until the city gets serious about enforcing this stuff, it doesn’t matter what we do,” he told those in attendance. “I applaud you for the work you’re doing but, 50 years from now, we’re still going to be doing the same thing.… I don’t want to waste my time if the city’s not going to get serious about this problem.”

Op-ed: Cal should take down beer and athletics billboard (11.03.14)
Student drinking at Cal taxes Berkeley paramedics (11.12.13)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...