by Carol Denney; published June 2016
More than two-thirds of the complaints about the bright green-shirted DBA employees come from people who complain that nobody's doing much to address downtown Berkeley's problems. People who work or visit downtown are commonly treated to the sight of the green shirts, as they are commonly called, walking right by criminal violations without lifting a finger, and they can't figure out why.
The origin of Berkeley's "ambassadors" years ago was to create a team assigned to call the police on behalf of business owners or others who didn't want to have to make calls themselves as well as address issues that weren't criminal in the first place, such as panhandling. Try as Berkeley's political majority has tried year after year to criminalize poverty in various ways, panhandling or simply being poor is still not a crime. The original "Berkeley Guides", like the contemporary "ambassadors", can't harass panhandlers without committing a crime themselves. But the majority of people making complaints about the DBA employees' inaction aren't talking about homelessness or homeless people, although the Downtown Berkeley Association surveys are designed to mischaracterize them that way. They are talking about criminal behavior, such as drug dealing, and can't figure out why the DBA employees don't bother reporting it.
A public records request revealed that even the DBA avoids having the "ambassadors" make calls to the police:
"The situation in the plaza is truly distressing and definitely one we see as a problem. We do call the Berkeley Police Department daily about this situation. We call on behalf of Seagate Properties 2172-2176 Shattuck Avenue, not as ambassadors. We make double digit calls to Berkeley Police on a daily basis, if we call as ambassadors our multiple calls make US look like the problem. By using the addresses and business locations where violations or assistance is needed, the violation or assistance carries the importance." - Lance Goree, DBA Operations Manager, July 9, 2015
This response certainly confused the downtown employee who complained about the "ambassador" crew's unwillingness to report criminal behavior, who then asked:
"I'm confused as to why an ambassador making a call would be a problem. They're representatives for downtown and should be reporting the crimes. Don't they work in concert with the police to help clean up the city?"
This question got an odd response from DBA Operations Manager Mr. Goree:
"Problem may have been a strong word. But when a dispatcher, not an officer, hears the same name, Ambassador, come up too often sometimes the tendency is to focus on the caller. Our relationship with BPD is outstanding and they are very supportive.
"We will continue our diligence in regards to the plaza issue. Hopefully the light at the end of the tunnel is very bright."
The person who lodged the complaint then makes the usual suggestion; that more police be dispatched to the downtown area since he still sees "nothing being done." There is no record of any further reply from DBA Operations Manager Lance Goree.
The DBA can certainly demand more police downtown. But the police know that the other parts of town that suffer through gunfire, gang-related violence, and serious property crime are not at all enthusiastic about having even more police resources re-directed to an already saturated downtown area to deal with relatively low priority "quality of life" issues.
The Public Records Request of DBA's internal complaints revealed some other interesting facts: there is no confidentiality for a complainant. All the complaints go directly to DBA's Operations Manager Lance Goree who oversees the "ambassador" employees himself and as a DBA employee has arguably the most conflict of interest regarding representing the public's interests in fair conduct.
But the real story is that almost nobody uses this internal complain process, which was created at the public's insistence after the well-publicized video footage of an "ambassador" beating a homeless man in an alley went viral. The DBA agreed to create a complaint system, but in fact created an internal "Compliments/Complaints" program instead.
Only two people have used the system to compliment an ambassador, and both were logged at around the same time on behalf of the same DBA employee, an employee who was the subject of a complaint for rude and inappropriate behavior toward a homeless person filed with the Peace and Justice Commission months before the DBA's internal complaint/compliment system was created. That complaint was not included or noted in the Public Records Request documents.
One of the people complimenting the employee who belittled a homeless person was Genevieve Wilson, co-chair of the Homeless Task Force, who ironically had tried to stop the word "independent" from being included in the recommendation for a complaint process, arguing both in the Homeless Task Force meeting and later on the internet that speaking on behalf of an independent complaint system was in and of itself a "disruption" of the task force meeting.
The entire Homeless Task Force (including Genevieve Wilson) ended up voting nonetheless for an independent complaint system to help address accountability issues of DBA employees, but this, like many of the Homeless Task Force's recommendations, has not yet come to be. This leaves the more serious complaints, which include vicious remarks and violence against vulnerable poor people, constitutional violations such as tearing down public posters, power-washing directed at people instead of sidewalks, etc., without any avenue for independent, consistent, systemic evaluation.
It remains as true today as it was when two bright green-shirted DBA employees worked in concert to beat a homeless man in a back alley when they thought nobody was watching-- there is no independent accountability for this private, property-based security force funded largely with public money. But an examination of the DBA's complaint documents proves something equally powerful; that the rationale for the private security force's creation in the first place-- that the ambassadors would relieve merchants and citizens from having to call the police-- does not exist. The "ambassadors" are not calling police or anybody else about problems in Berkeley's streets according to their Operations Manager, even after the public's $1,518,122 investment this year:
Total district PBID assessment budget for its first year of operations is $1,518,122, as follows*:
Budget Less:General Benefit Assessment
TOTAL Cleaning & Hospitality Program 930,437 - 14,106 - 916,331
Beautification & Placemaking 150,475 - 0 - 150,475
Administration: Environment 162,137 2,116 160,021
Total Environment 1,243,049 16,221 1,226,827
Marketing, Business Support, Etc. 253,300 - 0 - 253,300
Administration: Economy 37,995 - 0 - 37,995
Total Economy 291,295 - 0 -291,295
TOTAL 1,534,343 - 16,221 - 1,518,122
* - Downtown Berkeley Association FINAL PLAN February 24, 2016 The DBA's contract comes up for renewal soon according to their oddly named Final Plan: "The PBID was formed with a five year term and is set to expire, unless renewed by Downtown property owners and the City of Berkeley, at the end of 2016." The citizens of Berkeley deserve at least to know that the peculiar game of telephone they were promised to address downtown issues has a severed line. And perhaps the enormity of the budget for "hospitality", and its obvious ineffectiveness, will finally convince sensible people that a bright green costume is a ridiculous way to spend scarce public funds.
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