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The Curious Case of the Bus in the Daytime

Armed robbery sparks a racial furor, rifle fire pierces a quiet Berkeley night, and an Alameda lawyer pays to keep drunk drivers off the streets.

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Two teens wielding a semiautomatic pistol exit a maroon Dodge Caravan on Euclid Avenue and tell a UC Berkeley student they'll kill her if she doesn't give them the digital camera with which she's just been photographing flowers. They also steal her wallet, phone, MP3 player, and passport, then speed off in the van. She screams. A homeowner calls 911. According to the Berkeley Police Department report of this March 6 incident, the student describes her African-American assailants to officers, detailing collar-length braids or dreads. Meanwhile, a 911 call from a woman a few blocks away describes two similar-looking teens leaping from a maroon van and fleeing up Berryman Path. Cops rush to the abandoned van, which was stolen in Oakland and contains the victim's camera case. Finding no gun, they conclude the youths are still armed. It's just after 3 p.m. in an area with few pedestrians. Spotting a bus that a young man matching the description has just boarded, the cops stop the vehicle. "Two sergeants entered the bus with guns drawn — but down, not pointing at anybody — preparing for a suspect that might be armed," Sergeant Mary Kusmiss told Apprehension. Questioned off the bus, the passenger revealed himself as Cragmont School basketball coach DeAndre Swygert, who was escorting kids to a game. Realizing their error, Kusmiss said, the cops released Swygert and went on their way.

The incident was understandably traumatizing for the coach and kids, as principal Don Vu wrote in a letter sent the next day to Cragmont parents. Kusmiss says some parents called it a race-related incident that reinforced "the notion or reality that young black men are stopped for no reason." Cragmont offered counseling to students the following week. Two weeks later, the incident was still being discussed avidly at a PTA meeting, says Cragmont parent Phyllis Steiber. Some media coverage fanned the flames. "Police Hold Gun On Teacher Aboard Bus Full of Students" was the headline of a March 14 Berkeley Daily Planet story that buried a description of the robbery — and thus the context — but led with gun-wielding cops. The Daily Californian's story was more balanced, and also noted that "despite the incident, the team went on to win the basketball game by 30 points." Still, to some, the news hook might have included a vicious midafternoon robbery in placid North Berkeley.

Being suspected because you resemble someone else who has committed a crime is the sad solution to an equation whose factors are witnesses, words, lethal weapons, and escape — all calculated at hyperspeed. "When officers get a description, they look for someone who fits that description," Kusmiss says. The cops who boarded the bus were both fathers with little children, she added. "This heightens their awareness, the fact that there are children nearby as they're thinking: What if the suspect leaps up all of a sudden in the bus and starts firing a gun?"

How do you believe police should have behaved?

Shots rang out

Just before midnight on March 14, 911 calls poured into the BPD about automatic gunfire heard near the intersection of Carrison and Mabel streets. According to the report, officers searching the area door-to-door found no victims but 23 rifle-round casings littering the 1300 block of Carrison. One bullet had shattered the window of a parked vehicle on Mabel. Another pierced the front window of a house on Burnette Street and lodged in a wall.

Drunks ride free

Because his clients have been injured by drunk drivers, Alameda lawyer William Berg wants to get drunk drivers off the streets. "I don't need more business," Berg tells Apprehension. "If I can do anything to get drunk drivers off the road, it's a good thing." So on alcohol-happy holidays, folks who have been imbibing in Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda can call Yellow Cab of Alameda or Veterans Cab and have their rides home put on Berg Injury Lawyers' tab. "It has to be from the party or bar to their residence," Berg says. "If they want to go from party to party or bar to bar ... let them pay for it themselves. If they want to go home, we'll pay. I have nothing against drinking. It's a free country. But it's against the law to drive if you're under the influence. It endangers everybody." He paid for 87 cab rides on New Year's Eve and now awaits the St. Patrick's Day data.

Far and away

Was it a time warp to the days of Sinbad — or was it actually Martinez on March 15? According to the log, someone called the cops to report an "Oriental male adult wearing a yellow turban ... swinging a machete" in front of an Alhambra Avenue store. The exotica spread the next day to Walnut Creek, where — according to the log — someone who witnessed a pair "dump a large tote bag" in a trash bin retrieved said bag and told cops it was full of parachutes that "might be stolen." On arrival, cops found the bag to be "containing various sails." Ahoy!

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