Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission calls for termination of ambassador program

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Amanda Hart/Staff

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The city’s Peace and Justice Commission approved a resolution April 6 asking for the termination of the Downtown Berkeley Association’s relationship with the current Berkeley ambassador program.

The program is run by Block by Block, the association’s contractor and service partner. The resolution — which calls for the association to end its ties with Block by Block and, therefore, the ambassador program — was drafted in response to an incident that took place March 19, in which a Berkeley ambassador was shown in a video assaulting a homeless man in an alley.

According to George Lippman, chair of the justice commission, the assault was part of a violent pattern of abuses that tend not to surface. He said the incident would prompt people to begin looking “not at the rhetoric but at the reality of the performance of the (association) and Block by Block.”

Downtown Berkeley Association CEO John Caner, however, said that the justice commission made its decision based on incomplete and misleading information, and that there is no credible evidence that the Berkeley ambassadors have a history of mistreating homeless people.

Though Caner suggested revising the ambassador screening process, he objected to terminating the program altogether, stressing that the majority of an ambassador’s duties consist of cleaning and landscaping.

“The key goal is to create a welcoming Downtown,” Caner said. “If you interview the general citizenry, ambassadors have been very well-received and respected for their work.”

According to Caner, the City Council is unlikely to support the commission’s recommendation to terminate the DBA’s relationship with the current ambassador program because of the lack of evidence and because of most council members’ experience with ambassadors and belief in their integrity.

While Lippman said ambassadors are beneficial to the community for their work in maintaining a clean and friendly atmosphere in the business districts Downtown, he said ambassadors are inadequate when they “become unsworn law enforcers.”

Lippman alleged that while ambassadors are “supposed to be the eyes and ears of the police,” they are “becoming the police themselves.”

Housing Advisory Commission Vice Chair Igor Tregub urged the community to bring the incident into a wider context.

“The question that the Berkeley community will have to answer is whether this was an individual act of localized violence or a systemic problem,” Tregub said. “If it is a part of a systemic problem, Berkeley will have to decide what to do with the program.”

The Homeless Task Force will present suggestions to address issues of homelessness at a City Council workshop June 23. The justice commission hopes to use these recommendations to propose alternatives to the ambassador program.

The justice commission also recommended that City Council defer consideration of potential ordinances related to proposals made March 17, including suggested prohibitions of unpermitted cooking on public sidewalks and panhandling within 10 feet of a parking pay station, until after the June 23 workshop.

Contact Jennifer Kang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @jennikang.