After 31 Years Fighting Crime, Berkeley Police Chief Retires

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Dash Butler had been police chief of Berkeley for less then two months when an armed man took more than 30 people hostage at a popular tavern near the UC Berkeley campus. The assailant killed a hostage, and Butler had to decide whether or not to send in a tactical police team.

In what would later be referred to as Butler's defining moment, the chief chose to send the team into Henry's Publick House. Police rescued 33 hostages and killed the captor.

"I will never forget that," recalls Roy Meisner, the current acting chief.

At a time when both Berkeley and the entire nation are experiencing a rise in crime, 52-year-old Butler will leave his department today, after more than 30 years on the job.

"There comes a time when you want to do something else, something different," Butler says. "Thirty-one years, that's a long time."

Much has changed during the 12 years Butler served as Berkeley's chief of police. When Butler took on the job in 1990, the annual homicide rate often exceeded a dozen-a number that dropped to one last year.

Butler announced his plan to retire last year but postponed his departure until the city approved a lucrative police retirement package. He is one of more than a dozen veterans slated to leave in the months ahead.

Though a number of major cities including San Francisco and Seattle recruited Butler for their police chief posts, he chose to remain in Berkeley.

"I got to know a lot of people over a lot of years and developed a real relationship with the people and the community-I'm glad I stayed." Butler says.

Shortly after graduating from UC Berkeley, Butler joined the Berkeley Police Department in 1971. He rose through the ranks, and took command of the vice squad in 1986 after being promoted to lieutenant.

Butler's time in the Special Enforcement Unit shaped his agenda as chief. He says street-corner drug trafficking causes the most deadly violence.

"If you can keep (drug dealing) under control, then you can make a real difference in the number of homicides you have," Butler says.

A combination of a strong drug enforcement policy and a crack down on domestic violence were critical in last year's suppression of violent crime, he said.

Butler called last year's low homicide rate "an oddity." This year, the department responded to five slayings and in the past week, gunfire wounded three people.

The surge in the homicide rate is still considerably less than levels a decade ago, he says.

"There's no fence around the city of Berkeley," Butler says. "If there are crime trends, they're going to impact us too."

Butler says police can do little to prevent some homicides.

Incidents like last month's fatal stabbing on Southside-an attack which police say was random, are hard to avoid, Butler says.

"It's certainly one of those things policing can do nothing about," Butler says. "It's just a situation that happens-you can't be everywhere."

Stronger drug enforcement, he says, is key to reducing violent crime. A recent effort by the Special Enforcement Unit netted nearly 40 suspected drug dealers in South and West Berkeley.

The department's drug suppression tactics garnered stiff criticism from local activists and the police watchdog group Copwatch, which has accused the Special Enforcement Unit of excessive force.

Cutting down the drug trade is more than just policing to Butler-it has assumed a personal meaning.

"My thing is violence prevention, period. I know that to keep those young men alive-and that's who's primarily out there killing each other-we've got to do what we've got to do as far as drug enforcement," Butler says. "They're black men just like I am and it means more to me to keep them alive than it does to appease Copwatch."

Though Butler pays little heed to Copwatch, he says he does not "tolerate" corrupt police in Berkeley, noting the low numbers of lawsuits against the department.

"We have to protect the rights of the community," Butler says. "I have never seen anybody bring anything to me that says we're violating them."

Rank-and-file officers have also criticized Butler.

The largest police union, the Berkeley Police Association, considered holding a no-confidence vote against Butler nearly two years ago. It charged him and department managers with neglecting their safety.

Butler says the relationship between the top-brass and officers is good, despite a few bumps.

After retiring, Butler says he plans to take a lengthy vacation, after which he may do some construction work.


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