About 160 people attended a Zoom town hall on public safety Wednesday night, March 31, 2021. Image: Berkeleyside

Officials from Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville convened on Zoom with more than 100 local residents on Wednesday night to discuss a rash of shootings and armed robberies that have left many neighbors feeling unsafe.

“These are incredibly serious issues that have immediate victims who need support,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín on Wednesday night. “These instances of violence also impact our broader community and do create fear for people who live in our community. People are afraid to leave their house. To walk their dog. To go out on a run. They’re afraid for their families. This is real. And we have to recognize this and address this.”

Arreguín and others said important work is being done in Berkeley to reimagine policing, address systemic inequities in the criminal justice system and attempt to tackle the root causes of violent crime. New efforts underway in Berkeley involve the creation of a Specialized Care Unit to dispatch mental health workers instead of police to crisis calls, and the development of a program like Oakland’s Ceasefire violence prevention initiative.

The city is also looking into the possibility of a new Department of Transportation where unarmed civilian employees, rather than police, would handle traffic enforcement. Analysis of that proposal is ongoing and would require changes in state law before the overhaul could happen, the mayor cautioned.

But the work doesn’t end there, Arreguín added Wednesday night: “We know there’s still a need for our police to respond.”

Berkeley’s Interim Police Chief Jennifer Louis, who took charge of the department in early March, said there have been six shootings in Berkeley in 2021 — three people have been arrested and charged — and that police have already recovered 22 guns during investigations this year ranging from patrol calls and routine traffic stops to search warrants resulting from detective work.

She also described a robbery series that began in mid-March and is believed to include as many as 13 separate incidents in Berkeley alone, with other robberies in the same series also happening in nearby cities. Louis said Oakland police have made three arrests in connection with the series, and that the investigation is ongoing.

Arreguín called the robbery series “very alarming and unacceptable.” He told meeting attendees that the City Council is focused on creating policies officials hope will make the city safer while leaving operational decisions to police. Arreguín encouraged community members who want to do more on-the-ground public safety work themselves to consider forming neighborhood watch groups.

West Berkeley Councilmember Terry Taplin organized Wednesday night’s meeting in collaboration with South Berkeley Councilmember Ben Bartlett and Mayor Arreguín. Taplin said he had done so because he had been troubled by the uptick in shootings in Berkeley and wanted to hold the forum to discuss them while also strengthening the partnerships with leaders in nearby cities.

“Like many people in our community, I have been deeply disturbed by the uptick in shootings in South Berkeley,” Taplin told the 160 or attendees who joined the public safety town hall on Zoom. Along with the ongoing process to reimagine policing in Berkeley, Taplin said, “it’s critical that we are being cognizant and responsive to the immediate public safety needs and concerns of the community.”

At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Taplin, Bartlett and other council members had put forward a proposal — to be considered later this year — to fund bike and foot patrols in West and South Berkeley to help make the community safer.

“We must employ a variety of tactics to deter, intervene and investigate crimes,” Taplin said during Wednesday’s Zoom. “And, because crime does not end at the Berkeley border, we must work more closely with our neighboring jurisdictions.”

To help cement those bonds, Taplin invited Emeryville Councilmember John Bauters along with Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb and Oakland’s Deputy Police Chief Chris Bolton to participate in Wednesday night’s forum. All three spoke about ongoing strategies in those cities to address crime as well as recent trends.

Arreguín said he would like to develop a regional program, similar to the East Bay Public Safety Corridor Partnership spearheaded in the 1990s by former Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, that would focus on violence prevention and restorative justice.

Bauters spoke in favor of collaboration and said local law enforcement agencies have worked together in the past to identify organized rings of auto burglars and address other public safety trends. And Bolton said OPD has a strong intelligence network, with links to police in Berkeley and Emeryville, that is focused on solving shootings and other serious crimes.

“We share many of the same problems,” Bolton said. “Many of the same criminal groups, and some of the same conflicts. We do have coordination and communication.”

Bolton said Oakland has seen a “dramatic increase” in shootings and homicides already this year. And illegal firearms are prevalent, he said: Last year, OPD recovered 45% more firearms than it had in 2019. And, already this year, OPD has recovered 30%  more guns than it had recovered last year at this time.

Bolton said the reduced bail schedule now in place and other recent changes to the rules around incarceration have created challenges for law enforcement because people are not staying in custody. Numerous people who get arrested are repeat offenders with multiple arrests, he said, and a single robbery crew might be responsible for a dozen or more robberies, he added.

“That’s our biggest challenge right now,” he said.

Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb observed that, after several years of reductions in serious and violent crime reports, these incidents began to rise again in mid-2019.

“It increased even more during COVID for reasons we may or may not ever know,” he said. Kalb said crime trends always show patterns of increase and decrease, adding, “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about it. On the contrary, we have to take serious action.”

Kalb also said experience had taught him that tackling violent crime isn’t possible unless cities ensure their police detectives have the resources they need to do their investigations. That’s essential, he said, whether the goal is to get the folks who are committing crimes into custody or into diversion programs to help them succeed.

“You can’t do anything with them if you don’t find out who they are and investigate the crime,” Kalb said. “There’s a lot of work to do.”

Learn more about the city’s efforts to reimagine policing in Berkeley, including how to get involved, on the city website.

"*" indicates required fields

See an error that needs correcting? Have a tip, question or suggestion? Drop us a line.

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...