Update: See the latest on the status of cameras at San Pablo Park in our March 8 story.
The Berkeley City Council last week approved surveillance cameras in San Pablo Park, where gunfire that left three men wounded Aug. 18 forced dozens of children to scatter. The cameras were part of Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s proposals for improved security following the shooting, and the council item was proposed by the mayor and council members Linda Maio and Sophie Hahn.
Reaction from residents of the South Berkeley neighborhood to the cameras was mixed during the Oct. 16 council meeting. While some worried about a “Big Brother” scenario, in which the government intrudes on people’s right to go about their public business, most speakers were chiefly concerned with ridding their streets of criminals brazen enough to fire guns near children.
“I witnessed the most recent shootings in the park with my 3-year-old daughter, while we were merely feet (away),” said Sari Weis, who lives a block from the park and supports cameras. “I covered her with my body. We crouched, and we ran. And I look at her and I’m sick about it. I think about the people who were shot, and I want to work with all of you to make us all safer in the neighborhood.”
Ryan Keeley, a math teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, was hosting a party in the park for his daughter’s fifth birthday.
“There were hundreds of people in the park,” Keeley told the council, appearing to choke up. “When the shots rang out, we hit the ground, we grabbed kids, we pulled them to the ground.”
“I couldn’t find my 2½-year-old,” he said. “It was the longest 30 seconds of my life. He was over by the tot playground, which is the place where the shooting happened. Luckily, my 11-year-old nephew grabbed him and (brought) him over.”
Keeley was among multiple speakers who agreed that asking residents about their preferred solutions to area crime would be a good idea, a proposal suggested by Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, whose district — covering much of West Berkeley — includes the park. Council signed off on the survey, which City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said, at the time, would go out within a week on Berkeley Considers, the city’s electronic platform to pose questions and get residents’ answers. The question has not been put up yet.
City Management Analyst Melissa McDonough said Wednesday the city is still working out details concerning the survey and cameras — including where they would go and how they would be used — and may have more information next week. The city has already committed $2.5 million to park improvements.
“I honestly feel like cameras are not the solution,” said Davila. “I think we need to dive deeper into the systemic issues that have been creating these problems.”
Among the other possible solutions floated during the meeting were using gunshot-detecting ShotSpotter technology, gun buyback programs, increased police patrols and more youth programs. Not everyone was comfortable with putting surveillance cameras in a public park.
“The idea of a blatant camera in the park has an oppressive feel,” said South Berkeley Councilman Ben Bartlett.
Josh Charkow, who lives near San Pablo Park and was there with his son during the shootings, said cameras would deter crime. He also pointed out that witnesses might not feel safe talking to police and had harsh words for those calling the cameras “unjust.”
“I find it unjust that my 5-year-old has to live with this memory for the rest of his life,” he said. “I find it unjust that, had someone recorded this with a smartphone, no one would’ve said anything (when) they could’ve turned it over to police. But you know what? A lot of people won’t do that because they’re afraid of retribution. Why should the onus be on the citizens to turn that over? If there’s going to be a shooter at the park, it’s on the city to record that and document that.”
Councilwoman Maio said, though she’s “very sensitive to the concerns about cameras,” the ones at the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Delaware Street helped police solve three homicides in recent years.
“(The suspects) were apprehended because there were cameras,” she said. “They’re not out there on the street with guns, killing people now, so I think that’s real evidence that it makes a big difference. At the same time, we do have to be careful not to abuse the fact we have cameras there.”
San Pablo Park has been disputed territory between West and South Berkeley gangs, authorities have said.
There has also been other violence in the area. Rap musician Alex Goodwin Jr. was shot to death outside his home just south of the park in August 2016. Eleven months later, there was another shooting near the park. Flying glass from a shooting injured a resident of the 2900 block of Mabel Street, also just south of the park, in April.
Two weeks after the shootings in August, the city hosted a community meeting over gun violence in the neighborhood. Davila and Arreguín discussed possible solutions, such as cameras, an environmental design meant to curb crime and increased area police patrols. An extra two-person police patrol has been working in the neighborhood and the park on an overtime basis since the community meeting and BPD has deployed a Mobile Command Vehicle which functions like a police substation around San Pablo Park and on the 2900 block of Sacramento Street.