Berkeley mayor to Cal parents: Safety around campus is 'our top priority'

"It is a serious wake-up call," one UC Berkeley parent told city officials. "The streets of Berkeley are not safe."

Berkeley mayor to Cal parents: Safety around campus is 'our top priority'
Parents of UC Berkeley students have been organizing to ask city and school officials for stepped-up security around campus. Jeremy Huang / Unsplash

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín assured worried Cal parents Tuesday night that safety in the neighborhood near campus — where a shooting over the weekend ended one man's life and wounded three others — is of the utmost importance to city leaders.

"We hear you. This is a very serious issue," Arreguín told parents during Tuesday night's Berkeley City Council meeting. The safety of the Telegraph Avenue neighborhood where the shooting happened, he added, is "our top priority."

Parents of UC Berkeley students called in to Tuesday night's meeting to push city leaders to do better in the wake of what appears to have been Berkeley's most violent shooting in decades.

"It is a serious wake-up call," parent Amy Wang told council. "The streets of Berkeley are not safe."

Wang and other parents asked for more police patrols near campus, better funding for police and improved technology — such as security cameras and license plate readers — in the Southside neighborhood.

"Colleges should not be crime scenes," Wang told officials. "The streets of Berkeley should not be crime scenes. It is time to address the crime issues in this city."

Berkeley police have added patrols near campus

Hundreds of UC Berkeley parents had actually begun organizing in late September to urge campus officials to ramp up safety near Cal following a series of disturbing reports in and around student housing in the early weeks of the fall semester.

The past weekend's shooting ratcheted up their worries to an entirely new level.

"The students are still walking to class where bloodstains are on the sidewalk. What immediate action is being done?" UC Berkeley parent Kimberly Plummer asked officials. "Now is the time for action before anyone else is killed."

Berkeley Police Chief Jen Louis told community members and officials that she had spoken to UCPD's police chief "immediately" after the shooting about how to increase patrols near campus both now and into the future.

Louis said they were determined to come up with a solution "so that we weren’t just providing extra patrols for a day or two, but that we were looking for something that could last longer."

Historically, every year when the students come back in August, the Berkeley Police Department has activated its Southside Safety Patrol, a special unit that is specially assigned to the south campus area to watch for trouble.

This year, the unit was slow to launch despite some efforts within the department in recent weeks. The first Southside Safety Patrol team of the season was not deployed until Saturday night, nearly 24 hours after the fatal shooting on Telegraph Avenue.

On Tuesday night, Louis told council meeting attendees that she has assigned additional patrols to the area near campus and that BPD's bike unit has also been working in the Southside neighborhood "when we're able to." (The unit also works downtown on and around Shattuck Avenue.)

"Our beat officers are highly aware of the trauma that those students experienced," Louis said Tuesday, "and that seeing more officers up there provides them a greater sense of security."

One challenge to the effort to get more police into the area, however, has been BPD staffing, which continues to be at a "historic low of officers that are available to be out on the street," Louis said Tuesday night.

The Berkeley Police Association — the union that represents officers — has said that number is currently just 128 officers, which does not include those who are out on leave, in field training or still at the academy.

Staffing levels affect everything from response time and the pace of investigations to the number of officers who are available to handle a critical incident in the city, such as Saturday morning's shooting on Telegraph Avenue.

The department is authorized to have 178 officers, but recruitment and hiring have been slow.

That's in part due to a national crisis in both municipal hiring in general and in emergency services as well.

City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley told council members Tuesday that staff has been "working very hard" to tackle the challenge.

"We are going to be doing everything that we can to attract and retain good police officers," she said.

Williams-Ridley said staff plans to bring forward a recruitment and retention plan "to make sure that we can incentivize our employees that we have here and to attract those that want to come."

"We have a very, very strong police department that’s able to go out there and solve a lot of these crimes very quickly," Williams-Ridley added. "I’m very proud of the work that they do."

When it was his turn to speak, Councilman Rigel Robinson, a former UC Berkeley student who now represents the neighborhood south of campus, thanked parents for bringing their safety concerns forward.

Robinson said he had spoken to residents who had been affected by Saturday's violence, including one who had come home to find a neighborhood in chaos and did not know what had happened.

"And one who was right there, ran, and hid behind a trash can when they heard shots fired," he said. "I’ve heard from countless parents who are in the heartbreaking position of having to fear for their child’s safety from miles away."

Robinson said he had "full faith" in the BPD detectives who are working the case and asked community members to give them time to carry out the investigation and follow up on leads.

He also assured parents that he reads every email that comes into his office.

"I try to respond to all of them. On Tuesdays," which are often City Council nights, he added, "that is difficult. I appreciate deeply your input, your ideas, and your care for the safety of our city."

Cal parents campaign for safer Berkeley streets

Tuesday night's reactions from Berkeley city officials and staff were not part of the scheduled discussion.

Parents had called in to speak at the beginning of the meeting during the public comment period reserved for items that are not on the agenda, which generally is set days or weeks in advance.

Some community members said they were disappointed that council had not placed crime and safety on that night's agenda given the events of the weekend.

For many Cal parents, the meeting provided an important moment to continue pushing city and campus leaders to make community safety a bigger priority.

The parents' campaign began in late September following several crime reports on and near student housing in the Southside neighborhood as the fall semester got underway.

One of those incidents involved a man who reportedly trespassed into the Unit 2 student housing complex on Haste Street on Sept. 15 where he was seen in a girls' bathroom shower stall and later exposed himself to and sexually battered a Cal employee.

That night, UCPD arrested that person — identified as a 29-year-old man with no permanent address — in a Unit 2 bathroom. According to booking records, he remains in custody as of this week.

Also in September, Cal parents were concerned to learn about an 18-year-old with a rifle who reportedly robbed two pedestrians; an anti-Asian hate crime report about an individual who threw rocks at a victim; and a homeless man said to have trespassed into a Channing Way apartment building and threatened residents.

Those reports — along with others in the Southside neighborhood near campus — led UC Berkeley officials to convene a "safety town hall" meeting on Zoom on Sept. 29 for parents to air their concerns and allow them to hear how the university planned to address them. Some 300 people turned up.

The day of the meeting, those parents also launched a private Facebook group to help them stay informed and push for action from the university and the city.

That Facebook group, UC Berkeley - Cal Safety Concerns, now has nearly 800 members.

Some parents say they want private security, too

Continuing pressure from parents, as well as the university's own interests in creating a safe environment for students, appear to be prompting some results. Although parents say there is much more work to do.

After the Sept. 29 Zoom meeting, officials said they would improve building security by confirming that building doors and locks were functional and by encouraging students to use their key cards so that dorm doors aren't propped open.

UC Berkeley officials also said the campus would hire more "security monitors" to help watch for and report problematic behavior that might need a law enforcement response.

The security monitor program is staffed by students and its size is somewhat dependent on student interest, UC has said. At the start of the semester, there were just 12 monitors on the payroll. UC said it already has 72 more students "either fully hired or on the various stages of the hiring process."

Thirty-five of those "have been fully hired," Cal told parents in a recent email.

During the Sept. 29 Zoom meeting, some parents made Bay Area headlines by saying they would be willing to hire private security if campus and city police resources are insufficient. Parents continue to explore that option.

"Private security has been something the university has used in certain circumstances," UC told parents in an email after the Zoom meeting. "In general, our students prefer UC Berkeley student and professional staff to provide security. However, we are evaluating all of our options."

In response to parent concerns, Cal also said it was looking at whether additional security cameras might be appropriate in the neighborhood.

"We currently have security cameras positioned on the exterior of our residence halls and in the main lobbies but not other interior spaces to protect privacy," officials wrote. "These camera feeds are recorded and reviewed in response to an incident. However, we are discussing your feedback and taking it under consideration."

Some parents also alerted UC Berkeley staff to a problem with its blue light emergency phone system that had been identified during the move-in period. One parent who tried to use the phones said she found that the buttons weren't working and that she couldn't get through for help.

In response to those reports, UC Berkeley said it had assigned staff to start checking all of the blue light phones across campus.

"To date, the campus has checked roughly 200 of the 250 blue light phones that are external, and of these approximately 50 are being repaired," Cal said in an update to parents Friday night.

UCPD is also working to boost staffing

After Saturday morning's shooting on Telegraph Avenue, the University of California Police Department also "increased high-visibility patrols" near campus "during the evening hours," Capt. Sabrina Reich told Aipsasiamedia on Wednesday.

The department currently has 46 officers on staff and is working to get to the fully-authorized level of 48, she said.

UCPD has also been working to expand its student-staffed Community Service Officer (CSO) program.

Among other duties, the CSOs provide free "BearWalk" escorts to students at night and conduct security checks at residence halls.

This semester already, the program has grown from 40 to 57 CSOs. The program's ultimate size will depend on student interest, she added.

"We are seeing an increase in the requests for the night safety walk escorts," Reich said Wednesday. "We will continue to hire, and the goal is to try to get up to 100-120 CSOs."

Aipsasiamedia will continue to cover campus safety issues closely. If you're a member of the campus community with concerns, we want to hear from you.