The murder of Cash App founder Bob Lee this month has led to a new debate about violent crime in San Francisco. Some argue it’s out of control, while others claim it’s on par with other large cities.
What about Berkeley?
When the mayor and City Council voted last year on a sweeping series of measures to reimagine policing, Mayor Jesse Arreguin reassured residents, saying:
“Berkeley is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. We can maintain support for our excellent police department while building toward a transformative and holistic approach to public safety.”
Yet one year later, violent and property crime in Berkeley is at a 10-year high. And violent crimes such as homicide, rape, robbery, and assault, jumped by over 25% last year.
As in the case of San Francisco, some suggest crime in Berkeley is within historic norms. Others put an optimistic spin on it by claiming crime is just returning to “normal” pre-pandemic levels, as if violent crime were simply an unfortunate but unavoidable byproduct of any mid-sized city — like ambient noise or long lines at the grocery store.
But these explanations let the mayor and City Council off the hook for doing anything to reduce crime. There are at least 30 vacancies at the Berkeley Police Department — so many that City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley announced this month it would be reducing patrols. That means fewer cops on the streets, and more opportunities for criminals to act. And those vacancies won’t be filled anytime soon: nearby police departments are offering signing bonuses to attract recruits.
Berkeley Police Department? Zilch.
That needs to change.
If your police force is understaffed, at least give them the tools they need to fight crime. Tools like intersection cameras and drones. Mayor Arreguin proudly told Fast Company in 2018: “Say the police or fire department wants to acquire a drone, then they’re going to have to go to the City Council under this policy and get approval for this technology.”
Fair enough. But BPD’s request for more high-tech equipment has been languishing in committees for months. How long must residents wait for a safer city?
The Palo Alto City Council demonstrated this month how to put common-sense controls in place to protect privacy while giving law enforcement the tools it needs. It voted to install license plate scanners at key locations around the city. Councilmember Julie Lythcott-Haims explained the council’s unanimous approval: Palo Alto Police “have done their homework. They have consulted with the ACLU. They consulted with the community. They answered our tough questions.”
The Berkeley City Council needs to take a page from Palo Alto’s playbook.
After a series of violent attacks at UC Berkeley, parents like me formed an advocacy group called SafeBears dedicated to making Cal safe for students. We’re calling for new security measures including better night transportation, gated access around student housing and increased lighting on streets where students live. But the school is part of the city; until the city of Berkeley as a whole becomes safer, students will continue to be at risk.
Berkeley has a proud tradition of being at the forefront of social justice. But upholding that heritage should not come at the cost of public safety. As Palo Alto just demonstrated, you can make your community safer while building sensible guardrails to protect privacy and civil liberty.
That’s how you walk and chew gum at the same time.
We hope Mayor Arreguin and the Berkeley City Council are paying attention.
Sagar Jethani founded SafeBears, an advocacy group dedicated to making Berkeley safe for students.