Berkeley is considering the installation of at least seven new security cameras to help tackle this year’s rise in gun crime — but whether the proposal will be funded remains an open question.
Councilmembers Terry Taplin and Rashi Kesarwani brought forward the proposal this week in response to growing concerns about the increase in shootings in the neighborhood. Berkeley has had 36 shootings this year compared to 29 at this time last year. Much of the gunfire has been concentrated within a small radius in West Berkeley that spans Taplin and Kesarwani’s West Berkeley council districts.
“The cameras are to be used during the investigation of crimes, such as the gunfire incident, one of many shootings last summer, that took place outside of my mother’s bedroom window,” Taplin said Tuesday night. “We often hear that crime is down from previous decades. That is cold comfort to parents and park-goers who have had the unfortunate experience of ducking, fleeing for cover with small children while shots are being fired.”
In early September, the occupants of several vehicles were involved in a daytime shoot-out that frightened families at George Florence Park. Other shootings in the neighborhood since August sent a man and a 16-year-old girl to the hospital with gunshot wounds.
“Everyone in West and South Berkeley, and the city at large, deserves the peace and security of knowing that our police department has the tools to focus its limited resources on violent crime,” Taplin said Tuesday night, “and that there should be accountability for people who would harm our residents and put the safety of our community at risk.”
But not everyone supports the proposal. Some 15-20 local activists — many of whom have pushed for police reform and abolition during public meetings in the past year — said the proposed security cameras would turn Berkeley into a “surveillance city.” They said the item needed more discussion and should go before the city’s new Police Accountability Board.
“Cameras have not proven that they are the answer and have actually been subject to abuse,” said Elliot Halpern, a volunteer board member of the Berkeley Northeast Bay Chapter of the ACLU of Northern California.
Hector Malvido, a member of the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, told officials he lives in the neighborhood where many of the shootings have happened. But he also reminded them that communities of color tend to be most impacted by violence and “most harmed by these technologies.”
“What are the optics of this?” he asked. “What are we telling our communities we are willing to invest in?”
But, unlike many Berkeley meetings where support for increased law enforcement is non-existent or in short supply, about a third of the public commenters urged city officials to support the camera proposal.
One man, who said he had lived in West Berkeley for years, said the city needed to take action to tackle the increase in violent crime and recent spate of shootings. He said he had been robbed at gunpoint three times while running a small business in Berkeley.
“I think everyone here can agree: One time is one time too many,” he told council. “I fear for the neighbors’ children who I see play outside every day. So I support anything that would help, including cameras, to lower the violence.”
Another speaker said he was infuriated by the still-unsolved murder of a 19-year-old pregnant woman in Berkeley last year and other unsolved crimes including neighborhood shootings. He said BPD is “woefully understaffed” and that the city must do more.
“We need these tools to help solve senseless violent acts,” he said. “Please keep me and my family safe.”
The current proposal to install cameras at seven key intersections in West Berkeley is estimated to cost $525,000-$1,050,000 up front, plus ongoing maintenance costs of $280,000. Locations are still being determined but some of the proposed priority spots are on University Avenue, Dwight Way and Ashby Avenue.
Security footage use would be limited to “solving criminal investigations,” according to the proposal. “The cameras are not intended and would not be used for any kind of surveillance purposes.”
The Berkeley City Council has been working since the killing of George Floyd last year to enact a wide range of police reforms designed to limit police contact with community members, in an effort to address racial disparities, and tighten up reporting requirements around uses of force and “militaristic” equipment.
The city hopes to launch a new Specialized Care Unit to respond to calls involving non-violent individuals in crisis and is analyzing how it might change state law to allow the creation of a new Department of Transportation, dubbed “BerkDOT,” to overhaul the city’s approach to traffic enforcement.
More recently, council members — particularly Taplin — have begun to talk about the need for stepped-up enforcement and more technological tools for police, especially given BPD’s significant, ongoing staffing challenges. Taplin has already put forward proposals to ban ghost guns and secure automated license plate readers to help solve crimes. Later this month, he has a proposal before council designed to address increased sideshow activity and other forms of reckless driving.
Some of these proposals, including the security camera item, are “budget referrals,” meaning they will go into a queue of requests from council members to be considered in November.
On Tuesday night, officials voted to place the security camera item in that queue — which inevitably contains more requests at any given time than the city can afford. The mayor then looks at that list and compares it to the amount of money that is available. He then makes funding suggestions — to be voted on by the entire council — based on item priority as well as equity across the city.
On Tuesday night, Mayor Jesse Arreguín asked Taplin and Kesarwani to ensure that the camera item includes a use policy to limit footage review to active criminal investigations and that it complies with existing policies related to city-operated cameras, such as those at San Pablo Park and in the marina.
Arreguín also asked his colleagues to come back with the final list of proposed camera locations. And Councilmember Kate Harrison asked them to ensure that the use policy has clear rules about data retention.
Taplin and Kesarwani agreed to the requests.
She said, too, that she very much supports long-term efforts underway in Berkeley to boost “social investments” that provide alternatives to crime to those who need it. But she said many community members are also demanding action and accountability now.
“We need to consider this to help ensure accountability for violent gun crimes,” Kesarwani said, “and so we can cause some people who have a desire to come to our town to wreak havoc to think twice if they know these cameras are installed. This is something that we can do now.”
South Berkeley Councilmember Ben Bartlett credited his colleagues for “wading into the debate between surveillance and security.”
That “is an age-old issue and one of increasing importance,” Bartlett said. “You were brave and persuasive. I want to congratulate you on caring for your community.”