City officials and police during a forum on gun violence on Friday. Image: Berkeleyside

The Berkeley Police Department will launch a new community advisory group in January in an effort to build trust and foster communication with the public, authorities announced Friday.

The announcement came during a Zoom forum on gun violence that had been organized by Councilmember Ben Bartlett and Mayor Jesse Arreguín. Councilmembers Cheryl Davila and Rashi Kesarwani were also in attendance, along with more than 40 members of the public.

Berkeley has already had 37 confirmed incidents of gunfire in 2020, killing four people and wounding 10 others. In 2018, Berkeley had 20 shootings. Last year there were about 30, including a shooting at People’s Park that left one man dead. Three people were wounded in shootings last year.

The recent drive-by shooting of pregnant 19-year-old mother Sereinat’e Henderson prompted officials to take bolder action than they have taken in the past with other Berkeley homicides. After Henderson’s killing, Bartlett immediately put forward a proposal to launch a new violence prevention program in Berkeley and also called Friday’s forum on gun violence.

Officials said they wanted the public to have a chance to ask their questions about the recent violence and get answers directly from authorities. Six members of the Berkeley Police Department, including Chief Andrew Greenwood, Lt. David Lindenau and four members of the department’s Community Services Bureau, were in attendance.

Some community members wanted to know what has caused this year’s increase in shootings, which has also been seen in other communities and has been attributed in part to COVID-19.

Greenwood said many of the shootings have been caused by “interpersonal conflicts” among groups in Berkeley or, in some cases, involving people in Berkeley and people who live elsewhere. Some of this year’s shootings may involve gang activity, he said.

Police said one of the challenges in solving these cases or making arrests is that victims often do not cooperate with the investigations primarily because they fear retribution from others in the community or do not want to be labeled a snitch.

Greenwood said investigators work hard to speak with any witnesses, track down surveillance footage and write search warrants that allow them to get guns off the street even if they can’t always make arrests.

During the public comment period, Timothy Carter — recent candidate for District 2 — said he had formed a neighborhood group that meets every Sunday at 5 p.m. on Zoom to share information and discuss ways to make the community safer.

Carter said he’d like more chances for businesses to mentor local youth so that they have something productive to do.

“Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” Carter said.

Other community members said it will be important for police and the city to work closely with the school district to ensure that the people who need the most support are getting it.

In response to a comment from the public, Mayor Arreguín said he’d like to see more programs and opportunities for youth that focus on conflict resolution.

Kameka Goodwin, the mother of Alex Goodwin Jr., who was killed in Berkeley in 2016 and whose case remains unsolved despite a $50,000 reward, said she’d like the city to offer more direction support, such as PTSD counseling services, to the families of homicide victims. The county offers some of these services, but they don’t make it easy for families to access.

“It would be great if the city had something like that,” she said. Of Alameda County’s services, she added, “You have to put your foot forward and go and get that. And that’s tough when you’re grieving.”

Goodwin said she still hopes someone who knows who killed her son will come forward so that her family can get justice. And she said the city must take steps to curb the violence before more lives are lost.

“It’s been four years and nothing has changed,” she said, “except someone else has to go through a burial, a funeral, and everything that comes with that.”

Police said COVID-19 has limited the amount of interaction officers can have with the public to build important relationships and trust. But officers said they are determined to make themselves available and are committed to doing what they can. In the past, they held monthly “coffee with the cop” events to allow people to meet police and ask them questions.

Starting in January, BPD will start a new Community Advisory Group program, said Sgt. Veronica Rodrigues, to have more of those conversations.

“We really want to foster the positive partnerships with the community,” she said.

Overall, though community members discussed the need to build trust and shift some resources away from the police department toward more robust social programs, the tenor of the conversation remained calm and respectful throughout the evening.

“I’m really heartened by this meeting even though the topic itself is extremely emotional and fraught with touchpoints and triggers for people,” Bartlett said.

The mayor concurred and pledged to do what it takes to address the violence.

“These are the types of conversation that we want to have,” Arreguín said.

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...