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UC Berkeley police say armed robbers are targeting students for their cell phones, iPods and laptop computers. Talking on a cell phone distracts people from their surroundings and makes them more vulnerable to being mugged, police say. (DOUG OAKLEY/Daily news)
University of California, Berkeley, students are being kicked, punched and robbed at gunpoint in an alarming wave of violent crime on and around campus.

Armed robberies on campus and in the nearby neighborhood usually increase at the start of the school year, according to police. But this year, the number of robberies has gone way up since school started in August.

From January through Tuesday, the number of robberies reported directly to UC police nearly doubled — from 12 in 2006 to 22 this year.

In the past month, UC and Berkeley police reported 17 strong-arm robberies in which a weapon or violence was used. And in August, there were 53 armed robberies in all of Berkeley compared with 26 in July, according to Berkeley police.

Crime in Berkeley is the subject of a special City Council meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday, said Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who requested the meeting.

In one of the more brazen attacks on students, a man with a gun and duffel bag entered Cafe Strada on Sunday night directly across from campus and collected six laptop computers from students valued at about $8,000. He approached people working at tables, calmly showed his gun and told them to put their computers in the bag. "That was so brazen, it was just amazing," said Mitch Celaya, UC Berkeley assistant chief of police, who added he has never seen anything like it in his 25 years on the force.

Neither had Sgt. Mary Kusmiss of the Berkeley police department.


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"We can't remember a similar type robbery where a lone suspect was so bold as to approach two different study groups and do it in an area so populated and busy at the time," Kusmiss said. "One of the students put his hands up and backed away from the table, and you think that would have drawn enough attention (to scare him off.)"

The same night, a man and woman were robbed of their cell phones at gunpoint on campus in separate incidents.

And on Monday night, two teenagers shot a man on campus with a BB gun, then started punching and kicking him in order to take his briefcase.

On Saturday night, a group of six teenagers surrounded a man on Channing Way who was talking on his cell phone. One of them punched him in the face, knocking him to the ground, and took his cell phone.

Celaya said all six teens were arrested. Two of those six were connected to the BB gun case, he said.

Both Celaya and Kusmiss are perplexed by the increase in robberies.

"We're not certain what to attribute it to," Kusmiss said. "We're particularly troubled by some of the recent bold robberies like the one at Cafe Strada. People should just be mindful not to resist a robber. Just give your property up."

Celaya said he is "shocked at the number of crimes being committed." As a result, UC police are adding two to four officers on the south side of campus.

"We arrest about 42 percent of the perpetrators but more just step right up," Celaya said. "You take one off the street, and another one fills his shoes."

Many of those arrested tell police they are driven by economics.

"In their minds, the students are rich, and they are all in a concentrated area," Celaya said. "It's like shooting fish in a barrel. Students walk around with expensive stuff: cell phones, iPhones, iPods and laptops."

Worthington said he is going to push for a measure at Tuesday's meeting to allow residents and business owners to be able to call beat cops directly on their cell phones to reduce response times to crime.

"Hopefully, we'll get an analysis from the police chief on what he thinks is possible," Worthington said. "Oakland and San Francisco and Richmond police are all restructuring what they are doing. I think it's time for us to take this really seriously."

Alison Duncan Kerr, a doctoral candidate in philosophy from Ohio State University conducting research at UC Berkeley and working on her computer Wednesday at Cafe Strada, said she had heard about the brazen robbery there.

"That's why I'm sitting here with my back to the wall," Duncan Kerr said. "If someone comes with a gun, there's not much you can do. It's really scary; I don't know what I would do."

Kevin Scharp, a professor of philosophy from Ohio State who is visiting with Duncan Kerr, had a different take on the situation.

"I'm not nervous about it," Scharp said. "You hang out in a big city, and that kind of thing happens. It is kind of rare, that kind of robbery, but I'm not going to change what I do."

E-mail Doug Oakley at doakley@ebdailynews.com.