a man in a red shirt stands in downtown berkeley next to one man in a yellow shirt atop an electric standup vehicle, and another man in a yellow shirt to his right.
DBA Ambassador program manager Perty Grissett and community engagement ambassadors Arthur Cardenas and Richard Molette, who carry pepper spray, batons and handcuffs to use in certain circumstances. Cardenas is using a “T3 Patroller,” or electric standup vehicle, which is part of the program. The ambassadors will patrol from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Photo: Matthew Jervis

Two specially-trained “community engagement ambassadors” carrying batons, pepper spray and handcuffs have joined the familiar, neon-vested downtown Berkeley cleaning crews to address reports of violence and unsafe conditions for local businesses.

The new Downtown Berkeley Association program kicked off in August after a three-month pilot. It enlists ambassadors to respond to business reports of harassment or criminal activity throughout the week and stabilize situations before they escalate to violence or require police involvement.

They’ll also fulfill regular ambassador duties like monitoring the BART plaza, picking up trash, providing directions, connecting homeless residents to city resources or requesting that they move from a business area when panhandling and when shops open in the morning. They have also been handing out masks, hand sanitizers, snacks and supplies.

Downtown Berkeley has seen the same fate as many bustling city centers during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a sudden drop in foot traffic and shuttered storefronts.

The ongoing homelessness crisis throughout the Bay Area has also been exacerbated by the pandemic, with shelter capacities reduced to limit the spread of coronavirus. Some areas of downtown have seen an increase in tents and temporary residences as people living on city streets navigate these changes in resources.

There’s no indication that overall crime has increased significantly in downtown this year, according to Berkeley police, but existing tensions between businesses and homeless residents haven’t fared well in this stressful, unstable environment.

John Caner, CEO of the DBA, said there’s been an uptick in vandalism, theft, verbal harassment, and — at worst — physical violence against downtown workers, and some businesses began asking for help in hiring private security.  The district has considered shifting to the security ambassadors for the last several years, and Caner said the pandemic was a final push.

“While [the Berkeley Police Department] has been great, they can’t always be there, and they’ve got a lot of other priorities in town,” Caner said. “With COVID, we have a lot less pedestrian traffic and we were seeing a lot more aggressive, and sometimes criminal behavior. We felt that having the safety ambassadors — particularly in BART plaza — would be a deterrent.”

How are the new ambassadors trained?

The DBA launched the current version of the ambassador program in 2012, which has hospitality workers, cleaners and a social worker. The newest position introduces trained guards who are tasked with protecting the public on a broad basis, instead of just a single storefront. Individual businesses as well as the city of Berkeley pay into a fund to support the ambassadors.

Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of the DBA employing armed ambassadors, particularly since there have also been reports of business improvement districts nationwide using the ambassadors to inhumanely shuffle around people living on the streets.

The DBA’s contract with New York-based StreetPlus, which operates ambassador programs across the country, includes sensitivity trainings and background checks for the top-level ambassadors, who are paid at a higher rate of $21 per hour to create a competitive pool of applicants. StreetPlus CEO Steve Hillard said the company’s focus is on respect, humanity and de-escalation in all interactions.

He added that an ambassador has never used a baton in the company’s eight-year history and pepper spray is used on a “very limited basis.” Handcuffs are deployed for citizens’ arrest in the case that someone needs to be restrained before police arrive.

“We’re not a police force, we’re a private company that’s been contracted to provide multiple layers of services that really are interacting to create a nice environment for people that live, work, and visit those downtowns,” Hillard said.

Ambassadors Arthur Cardenas and Richard Molette both have backgrounds in security work and law enforcement, and underwent the typical 8-hour training before their receiving their “Guard Card” through the state Bureau of Security and Investigative Services. Additional trainings covered mental illness and aggression, sexual harassment, diversity and inclusion, crowd control and more.

They don’t call the police for smaller crimes, like theft, but are trained to de-escalate, detain suspects and notify law enforcement for assaults, battery and felony crimes.

Unsheltered people have set up tents in front of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Sept. 8, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Molette has been in the security industry in the East Bay since 1977 and was briefly homeless himself in Oakland in the mid-1970s. He’s trained as a crisis intervention officer and homeless liaison officer and sees his position as a buffer between people who commit crimes, and law enforcement — especially since many people on the streets are on parole, or probation, and don’t want to return to jail. 

“There’s a lot of tension out there because of the pandemic, and people are frustrated, and the aggression — they take it out,” Molette said. “If it’s not on us, it’s on someone else — we just try to do the best we can in order to meet that demand.”

Molette said he needs the baton, pepper spray and handcuffs to protect himself in the case of a serious assault or attack, like in the case of an ambassador who had a gun pulled on them in May, but “physicality is a last resort.” He’s confident in his ability to de-escalate violent situations, such as the occasion when a man threw a chair at him on Shattuck Avenue.

“I continue to talk to them. Normally they calm down and say ‘I need help,’ and I’m here,” he said. “I give them the resources that they need in order to make that transition.”

Downtown businesses say they’re the first responders when it comes to crime

Caner receives dozens of emails from downtown business owners about subpar conditions in the neighborhood, and some of the most common complaints are about feces and urine near storefronts, small thefts and discarded, used hypodermic needles.

But there’s also been serious assaults and troubling reports of violence that catch regular store employees off-guard.

Last week, in the nearby Telegraph District, a man was charged with setting people on fire at a boba shop, a freak incident that left many downtown workers scared and worried. They say the steady stream of smaller inconveniences, paired with some major crimes, have made them defacto first responders to issues the city should be handling.

Adam Stemmler, the owner of the restaurant group that includes East Bay Spice Company and Spats pub, said his general manager was attacked by a woman in October and left with a concussion, and that racial epithets are constantly spewed at his “very diverse” staff.

Street violence is a complex issue that needs to be treated with nuance, he said, but his restaurant workers should not be on the front lines to respond to these city issues, nor are they trained to do so.

“If it were Cal students that were getting assaulted on a weekly basis, or if it were our wealthy residents that were living in the [Berkeley Hills], you know the city would step up and do something,” he said. “But because it’s our merchant population —first-generation, immigrants, hard-working people that are just trying to make a better life for themselves…nothing happens.”

He said the community engagement ambassadors have, however, already made a difference in the downtown landscape.

Businesses used to refrain from calling the regular ambassadors when they encountered violence or aggression because they didn’t think the ambassadors were equipped to handle it, Caner said.

Now, according to a 2-month status report for June and July, both ambassadors have made citizen’s arrests, stopped suspects and retrieved stolen merchandise on five separate occasions, safely handled three assaults on their person, and developed relationships and rapport with residents who live on the downtown streets.

How do homeless residents downtown feel about the ambassadors?

James Morey lives in a tent on Harold and Allston ways across the street from the DBA’s headquarters on Shattuck Avenue. He lived in Berkeley about 20 years ago and has been experiencing homelessness downtown for about a year now.

The point is to look for a better solution, than to sort of shift authority around to different people.” — James Morey

Morey doesn’t feel unsafe living in the area — though he tends to go to sleep early and doesn’t encounter much late-night activity — and said the environment hasn’t changed significantly over the course of the pandemic this year. He’s had a few conversations with the cleaning ambassadors and thinks they’re a positive, respectful part of the community who are well-equipped to engage with homeless people.

He said it’s an “unfair burden” for workers at businesses to respond to violent members of the community, but introducing a new iteration of the ambassadors, now trained to carry weapons, won’t solve a longstanding problem.

tents along the sidewalk in Downtown Berkeley
Several tents lined up along Harold Way. September 10, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

In light of a renewed, nationwide movement to defund police and invest money in critical social services, he added that it especially doesn’t make sense to give this responsibility to a “janitorial company with a couple of special employees.”

“Unless there’s really a large-scale consensus — not just among businesses, but people that shop in the area — that there’s some kind of problem that’s so bad that it needs this special measure, then it’s sort of back to square one,” Morey said. “What are these people supposed to do that anybody else couldn’t have done already? The point is to look for a better solution, than to sort of shift authority around to different people.”

The ambassadors have also partnered with Dorothy Day House to hand out masks, hand sanitizers, snacks and supplies every Friday through the Street Partnership Outreach Team, which attempts to aid homeless residents with some of the resources that have been cut back during the pandemic. Robbi Montoya, a Dorothy Day program manager who was once an ambassador herself, said it’s been a mutual benefit.

How will the DBA hold ambassadors accountable for weapons use?

Morey and a few other people living on the streets downtown who spoke to Berkeleyside for this story said they had generally good experiences with the cleaning ambassadors, but a couple said they had been hassled, intimidated or told to move their belongings when they weren’t bothering any businesses or customers.

According to a 2018 report from Berkeley Law, entitled “Homeless Exclusion Districts,” one-quarter of people interviewed experiencing homelessness in San Francisco, Sacramento and Chico said they’d also been “hassled” or “questioned” by ambassadors.

In Berkeley, an ambassador’s disturbing assault of a homeless man in 2015 went viral and drew sharp criticism from homeless people, advocates, and led to the DBA firing the worker. The DBA also dropped its contract with Block by Block in May 2018. The assault is still fresh for Carol Denney, who has been an outspoken critic of the DBA and was part of the movement to end pepper spray use in Berkeley 30 years ago.

“I can’t call them ambassadors,” Denney said, describing those DBA workers as being in an “impossible position,” but doing as they’re directed. “They are dedicated to policing the poor, they don’t focus on the wealthy, the students and so forth, they focus on the homeless.”

She called attention to the lack of independent oversight for business organizations like the DBA and said the introduction of batons, pepper spray and handcuffs should have been the topic of a public hearing.

If the weapons are used, Caner said the DBA will send a StreetPlus report to the city manager, police chief, mayor, Councilmember Kate Harrison and the DBA board of directors and post a report on the website, and allow the city to determine its method of sharing the information.

The DBA alerted the city to its program before running the pilot, and Caner said he was not instructed to present the matter to the public before the City Council, but would have done so if required. It’s currently been approved by the DBA board through the end of the year and may be expanded if more business reopen down the road.

“If the city decides we do not want community engagement ambassadors carrying batons, and pepper spray and handcuffs, that is their prerogative,” Caner said. “But it’s not fair to put them out there without the proper tools.”

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...