Public safety means different things to different people. The city’s reimagining public safety process is explicitly designed to steer us through Scylla and Charybdis into a more peaceful future. So when I asked my appointee to the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, what the task force’s conversations around gun violence had been like I was surprised to learn that there hadn’t been much considering this year’s 36 shootings (up from 26 at this time last year).
A few weeks ago, late on a Saturday morning, there was a shoot-out between people in two cars near George Florence Park, my neighborhood park, which was recently renovated to upgrade the 2-5 and 5-12 play area. Families with young children, who were there to enjoy what is ostensibly a peaceful public space, scrambled to secure their loved ones and dive for cover. With the park fenced in on three sides, the only path to exit the park would have been out into the street, which is often used as a speedway for drivers avoiding San Pablo Avenue.
As I stood with my constituents in the park a few days later, listening to their stories of cowering in the park and hearing their frustration with the city’s safety response in recent years, I wondered, “are the needs and perspectives of the neighborhoods I represent being taken seriously?” It is hard to answer this question in the affirmative when the response I get to any immediate public safety measures the City Council proposes is that my constituents should simply wait for the world to solve income inequality and that Berkeley should hire even more expensive consultants to continue reimagining.
The reimagining process is the city’s multi-year effort to produce a new paradigm for public safety with varied exchanges between communities, city staff, and consultants. But South and West Berkeley residents cannot be asked to simply wait a few years for our imagination to stop the violence happening now. My constituents frequently ask me what the city can do immediately to reduce gunfire — naturally, they are already familiar with the social determinants of crime and have had plenty of practice imagining life without them. Yet a speeding car or a gun can end those hopes and dreams in an instant. Imagining a better world is still an important task before us, but we also have to assess possibilities that are feasible today. The City Council’s mandate as public servants requires immediate action. We have a commitment not just to ensure a better world for future generations, but also for you, right now.
In 2020, Berkeley saw four lives lost due to traffic violence and more than 400 injuries. That same year saw a 66% increase in vehicle thefts and over 400 catalytic converter thefts. Meanwhile, shootings are up for the fourth year in a row, with a 44% year-over-year increase in gunfire reported since late September. And let’s not forget that behind each number is a person’s story. This year, the adult children of Latitia Ahmad saw their mother killed right before their eyes when a speeding motorist struck her on Ashby Avenue. Earlier this year, Jackie Erbe’s young child saw her struck and almost killed by a vehicle at the same intersection where she had just been advocating for safety improvements. An unidentified man was found dead in a crosswalk on Adeline Street, apparently struck by a hit-and-run driver. The city’s long-term efforts to develop and implement holistic reparative justice goals do not conflict with our mandate to hold the perpetrators of violence accountable. Indeed they are both complementary aspects of the same mandate we have as public servants: to do no harm, and uphold justice for all.
Cameras will not be a panacea to end crime, but with the Berkeley Police Department at historically low staffing levels, and automated speeding cameras and civilian traffic enforcement both preempted by state law, the city government’s options to fulfill its public safety mandate are limited. With 283 private citizens and businesses voluntarily registering their security cameras with the Berkeley Police Department, it’s incumbent upon us to ensure we can provide some of the same safety tools for the general public, in public spaces. Moreover, following a shooting or other violent crime committed in one’s neighborhood, some may not feel comfortable sharing private security footage with the BPD out of fear of retaliation for cooperating with law enforcement. Isolation makes our neighborhoods vulnerable; connection makes us resilient.
Nevertheless, I also believe in strong privacy rights. After all, what is privacy if not one of many freedoms that guarantee our safety? The government should not be privy to your grocery shopping, religious worship or political activities. But I also believe that driving a several-ton vehicle is a privilege, not a right, that comes with certain responsibilities to protect public safety, and holding citizens to those commitments is a far cry from Big Brother. As the saying goes, your right to swing your fist ends where it meets my face — and you can bet a truck hurts more than a fist. Moreover, I believe pedestrians and other road users deserve the right to be protected from cars that are already on wanted lists by the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs). That’s right — your license plate wouldn’t even be matched to a name unless your car was already associated with a list of stolen vehicles or open warrants.
Some criticisms of several council proposals hold that rather than enforcing public safety more effectively with modern technology, we should be focusing instead on root causes of social unrest — systemic racism, poverty, inequality, and disinvestment. While I also work to address these interrelated social ills in my capacity as a councilmember, it’s pretty clear focusing exclusively on these long-term visions is not an adequate substitute for recovering stolen vehicles or getting ghost guns and other illegal firearms, meth, and other substances off our streets. We can and must do all of the above. I am strongly in support of developing a community-based Ceasefire program, modeled after successful programs in Oakland and Richmond. I support fully funding Berkeley’s Vision Zero Plan so that our streets are engineered to promote slower, safer driving and save lives. I also support greater investments in community intervention programs such as Voices Against Violence, Berkeley Youth Alternatives, and Waterside Workshops. I strongly support developing a Specialized Care Unit and investing in the mental health and crisis intervention services that already exist and that we currently struggle to maintain.
Protecting the safety of road users by holding drivers responsible for the social contract they sign up for when obtaining a license is hardly an intrusion into civil liberties — it is the bare minimum your public servants should be doing to uphold them.
But it’s also worth noting that Vallejo, a neighboring city with a growing Black population, including members of my own family who chose to leave Berkeley for elsewhere, saw a 140% increase in the detection of stolen vehicles after introducing automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) while limiting data retention of unmatched scans to 30 days. That’s a real material gain for lower-income communities: fewer residents getting their car stolen when they need to get to work on time to pay their bills. It’s worth underscoring that both things can be true: Black people are harmed by systemic racial injustice and inequality, and having one’s primary mode of transportation stolen is also not a pleasant experience for any person trying to get to work on time.
When Black and Indigenous pedestrians are killed at a higher rate than white pedestrians, and drivers with a suspended or revoked license are 2.2 times more likely to cause a collision, we can immediately see how the lack of enforcement for basic traffic safety laws has a disproportionately negative impact on people of color. As we work to reimagine public safety institutions, we cannot lose sight of the current-day material reality: failure to enforce laws fairly and effectively is in itself a form of disinvestment that hurts marginalized communities. The City Council’s public safety committee is discussing a measure to authorize the city manager to install automatic license plate readers “at strategic locations including public facilities, entrances to the city and strategic intersections in areas impacted by violent crime, traffic violations, illegal dumping, drug offenses, and other criminal activity.” Data retention would be limited.
We do not yet live in a world where the rules establishing a peaceful society are imposed entirely by the gentle hand of positive incentives, voluntary cooperation, or sheer altruism. Unfortunately, we do live in a city where lawless violence — with cars and guns as the weapons of choice — has a disparate impact on Black and Brown communities and disinvested neighborhoods. If you can empathize with the generational trauma in the Black community, it shouldn’t be too hard to also empathize with Black people getting their cars stolen or hit or run over in crosswalks. Believe me, we’re not fond of those indignities either.
I’m confident that there’s no shortage of vision and imagination in our community when it comes to ideas for a safer city. For many, Berkeley is a symbol of peace and love. It’s long past time for us to actually invest in making that symbol a reality for everyone.
Correction: A reference to Vallejo’s vehicle theft statistics were originally misstated in the story. That has been fixed.