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The Class With a Beat--Police Beat That Is

March 30, 1994|MICHAEL MECHANIC | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BERKELEY — The course syllabus reads like a police academy brochure. Instructors are moonlighting FBI agents, police chiefs, district attorneys, cops and detectives. Lectures include "Bombs and Guns," "Rape Prevention" and "Federal Crime Reporting."

Students in this unusual course at UC Berkeley get self-defense training and licenses to carry Mace. For homework, each of the 28 students must patrol the campus in four-hour shifts in an effort to deter crime.

Donning bright yellow jackets emblazoned with a logo, they peek into nooks and crannies with flashlights and report suspicious activities to campus police using the cellular phones strapped to their belts.

The course, "Crime and Safety on the Berkeley Campus," was first offered last spring through a program called Democratic Education at Cal. Students who pass get three units toward graduation.

"This class is more about knowing what's going on in your neighborhood, while other classes are more long-term and have less to do with your everyday life," said junior Michael Caravantes, a biochemistry major who is considering a career in police forensics.

The class allows students to bring their safety concerns directly to the top. In a recent class, students grilled UC Police Chief Victoria Harrison and Vice Chancellor Russell Ellis about lighting on campus and the scaling back of a service that provides escorts for people who walk on campus at night.

Some students are considering careers in law enforcement, but the class is hardly a recruiting tool. Senior Susan Vasquez has no plans to wear a blue uniform but wanted to get Mace training and learn self-defense for her own safety. Sophomore Kris Withrow, who once envisioned a career in the intelligence field, said the class has soured him on law enforcement.

"You basically have to be a pure person all your life," he said, referring to the strict screening process for prospective law enforcement agents. "Technically, if you smoke (marijuana) once in your life, you don't pass. That's bull. I mean, I lived in Mendocino County for three years!"

The class evolved from CalWatch, a program that uses student volunteers to patrol the central campus at night. The volunteers were meant to be a presence on campus, checking to make sure buildings were secure and reporting light outages, unlocked doors and windows, and crimes in progress. They were instructed to be non-confrontational and let police deal with suspects.

Sgt. Michael Shipman, head of the UC police crime prevention unit, said he gets inquiries every month from other universities interested in setting up student patrols. But without the offer of pay or academic credit, student volunteers are hard to get.

CalWatch was launched in spring, 1992, with $5,000 in seed money--but by fall the original 12 volunteers had dwindled to four. By building a course around the patrols and offering academic credit, coordinators have had no problem reaching their goal of 25 to 30 students each semester.

A few say they are in it just for the units, but most students say they take their nighttime duties seriously. As one noted: "Berkeley is not too safe these days."

To pass the course, students must complete three shifts for a total of 12 hours on patrol. Some find the patrols a bit scary. "We did not turn our flashlights off the whole time," one freshman woman said, "because there were two of us, both 5-3, and a lot of dark bushes where someone could jump out."

Violent crime on campus decreased after the late 1980s, but is on the rise. According to UC police statistics, 55 violent crimes were reported on and around campus last year, up from 32 in 1992. Many students, women in particular, fear walking alone on campus at night.

To really deter crime, some class members said, CalWatch would need more volunteers than the class provides. "Before this class, I had never seen any CalWatch volunteers," Vasquez said. "I had never even heard of them."

Junior Adrian Chin, who is considering policing as a career, said the campus should be patrolled by police. "I think any kind of official presence helps," he said, "but we really can't do anything if something happens."

Only two UC police officers routinely patrol the 177-acre central campus at night, when there is little foot traffic. The department focuses most of its efforts on the streets south of campus. But the semi-deserted campus can make lone students and faculty feel vulnerable to attack.

Demand for the night escort service on campus has more than doubled during the past few years, Harrison told the class. Dr. Christina Maslach, vice chairwoman of the psychology department and a sponsor of the class, said the student patrols can contribute to campus life by quelling student fears.

"If people think it's dangerous, they won't go out," she said. "A lot of study groups, review sessions, concerts and lectures take place in the evening. If people choose not to partake in these things, it could be detrimental to their education."

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