Standing in front of his business on Telegraph Avenue between Haste Street and Channing Way on Friday afternoon, Al Geyer, chair of the Telegraph Merchants Association, observed relatively sparse amounts of foot traffic and people hanging around outside.
However, this has not always been the case. In the past, crowds of people have been prone to linger and disturb the area around Annapurna, the business Geyer has owned since 1969, he said.
“Here’s some tourists walking up the street with their family, here’s a man and woman walking — this doesn’t happen when this other thing starts to happen … you certainly can’t walk down the street with a baby when you have people yelling at you,” Geyer said. “Those people aren’t here right now.”
This time last year, Geyer said groups of what he described as aggressive people would form in the area and act disruptive, which he said often resulted in physical altercations. In today’s climate of high-speed communication and organization via social media, Geyer said problematic groups have also been well-coordinated, able to regroup within an hour of being dispersed.
But since the Berkeley Police Department launched a “walk the beat” pilot program that ran from November to January, such groups have largely dissipated, Geyer said.
During the program, a police officer would be assigned to patrol the Telegraph area on foot and monitor potentially disruptive situations, according to City Councilmember Kriss Worthington.
Geyer said this type of police presence engages those who cause problems more effectively and could create more lasting changes to overall safety on Telegraph.
“These people can only really be kind of dealt with when you’re on foot,” Geyer said. “It doesn’t work to drive by and just check it out once in a while. You need to have a presence. I’ve been here 40 years — it makes a huge difference.”
Members of both the Berkeley Police Department and the city manager’s office could not be reached for comment.
Worthington is now hoping to see the program instated permanently, because he said it is important to maintain safety in the area, which is close to the UC Berkeley campus and generates a large portion of the city’s sales tax revenue.
“It makes people feel like (the police are) paying attention, and I think it also preempts the problems from happening,” Worthington said.
Worthington said his biggest current obstacle to seeing the program permanently established is obtaining an itemized city budget. Though the City Council did receive a budget summary as well as a department budget listing, an itemized budget would detail the exact cost of each component, which Worthington said he needs in order to know what, if anything, can be adjusted to provide funding for the program.
“What if I wanted to eliminate a program? Well, it doesn’t tell me how much that program costs,” he said. “You can’t know what to move around if you don’t have the details.”
The council will vote on the city budget June 28, by which time Worthington said he hopes to be able to provide funding for the program in some way.
As the summer progresses and the weather gets better, more people have historically been drawn to the area, Geyer said. A permanent police presence on foot, he said, could prevent an aggressive atmosphere from taking root by motivating some people to leave the area.
“Ultimately, the word gets out that it’s no fun to hang out up here,” he said.
J.D. Morris is an assistant news editor.