A couple of years ago, Sonny Le and his five-year-old son were approaching their front gate in Oakland’s Glenview neighborhood after school when Le saw two men running towards them.
“One was trying to go behind us – the maneuver trying to corral your prey, basically,” he says. “The other one started coming right at me, at us. He put his hoodie on. It was like, OK, these kids gonna rob us.”
His fatherly instincts kicked in as the young men approached.
“One in front pulled his sweat jacket aside and showed me his gun,” he recalls. “It was shiny, brand new. I said, 'Look, don’t do anything stupid. My son is here. Here’s the money, take the money and run. Get out of here, don’t do anything stupid.' I gave him my wallet.”
The guys took $35 and fled. Le called the police. They arrived just a few minutes later, but didn’t catch the robbers.
In 2012, Oakland’s crime rate has surged. In 2012, violent crimes rose 23 percent, and burglaries spiked more than 40 percent. Meanwhile, those rapid police response became increasingly rare – it’s been three years since the OPD responded to burglaries and other non-emergency situations.
Oakland has 53 Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils throughout the city, all citizen-run. North Oakland’s Shattuck NCPC meets every second Tuesday of the month. From 7 to 10 pm dozens of Oakland residents pack the North Oakland Senior Center to report what they’ve seen on the streets in the past few weeks.
A neighborhood resident reports seeing a most-likely stolen car being stripped in broad daylight. Someone suggests taking down the license plates of cars like this in the future. There’s a police officer in the room, but he’s mostly there for support. This group sees preventing crime as their priority.
The Shattuck group was actually the first NCPC founded back in 1994, to respond to the high crime rate. Don Link has chaired the group since the beginning, and says engaging residents was always critical to lowering crime.
“When eyes are on the street and people doing the crime know that, they tend not to be as obvious and not to be as frequent,” says Link. “That’s the effect on the beat. It’s no longer ok to deal drugs on Alcatraz and Shattuck or 66th and Shattuck.”
Which is not to say that all the neighborhood problems have disappeared. Link and I meet up on a weekday afternoon to drive around his neighborhood. He tells me about the recent trends he’s noticed.
“We’re seeing more street robberies where people have guns put in faces and things taken,” he says. “Stolen cars quite frequently. Many burglaries.”
We keep driving south on Shattuck Avenue. As we approach 56th Street, Link recalls a string of shootings and strong-armed robberies that happened around here back in the winter of 2011.
“The people who were being robbed were frightened to have a gun in their face and have their possessions taken,” say Link. “So the neighbors came up with ‘Eyes on the Street,’ and this was spontaneous.”
Melissa White lives near 56th and Dover in North Oakland. At that time, she went door to door and organized about 20 volunteers around a four-block radius. She posted their numbers on their neighborhood watch listserv.
“If I was coming home, I can call ahead,” White recalls. “And I’d say, ‘Hey, I’ll be passing by your house around 10:30. Could you watch out for me?’ The person could either just look out their window, or if they felt comfortable, they could actually come out on their porch or come stand in their yard.”
She says she used this system a few times and felt a tangible difference on her bike rides home.
“I felt much safer,” she says. “Much safer because first of all, muggers look for someone who’s alone and there’s nobody watching. So if someone’s watching at their window or standing on their lawn, that’s immediately going to decrease the likelihood of a mugger taking action.”
Up in the hills about seven miles away, there’s a small neighborhood called Oakmore. It’s tucked away just west of Highway 13, below Park Boulevard.
Oakmore’s also got a burglary problem. Burglaries in the area surged 72 percent in just one year, from 2011 to 2012.
“This used to be a very quiet, unknown neighborhood,” says Jonathan Klein. “It’s not easy to find. It’s not on the beaten path.”
Klein’s lived in the neighborhood for 12 years. He was burglarized once a few years ago, but he never did anything about it. Then last December, someone tried to break into his neighbor’s house while two kids were home. Klein says that got people to act.
“We bandied about several proposals and the one that made most sense to our small group was, what if we had a private a patrol that just patrolled a certain number of houses that was manageable?” he says.
Within weeks, about 60 households contributed $800 each to hire a private security company. Two men now take turns patrolling a three-block area, six hours each weekday. They’re on contract for the next year. They can’t arrest anyone, but the idea is to have someone paying attention throughout the week.
“We don’t have a substation in the hills,” Klein says. “We don’t have police that can get to your home in five or three minutes. It’s not going to happen.”
A couple of weeks after the first patrol hits the streets, I head up to Oakmore to see how things are going. Around mid-afternoon I run into Oakmore resident Taylor Pacheco walking her dog. She tells me the guard’s presence has already helped her feel safer.
“If someone would come to my door for a delivery or what have you, I would not go to the door,” says Pacheco. “I would be looking out of windows upstairs. I was very very nervous.”
And she says the guards have already thwarted some burglary attempts.
“I think six at this point,” she says. “He’s specifically run up on individuals that did not live in this neighborhood. It was very clear they don’t live here and they were not vendors for this neighborhood. And upon seeing him, they drove off very quickly. We haven’t had one incident since he started, he just started.”
I also ran into a guard – he was driving a car with the name of a security company on the side, and wearing all black. He didn’t want to talk to me on tape. But he confirmed what Pacheco told me.
“Right now, if you’re a young black, Latino or Asian man walking around on your own, someone’s watching you,” Le says. “A lot of people are watching you. I think that’s wrong.”
Just down the hill from Oakmore is Glenview, where resident Sonny Le lives. Le knows people have legitimate safety concerns, but he says he’s also noticed a lot of his neighbors “profiling” people who may not live on his block.
“These neighborhoods belong to Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans before us before better-off people moved in, and they could still be here,” Le says. “But now, they can’t walk their own street. You can’t assume everyone on the street is a potential burglar or trying to case your neighborhoods.”
“The real question is do we want to help folks that we’re labeling as problems, or do we just want to get rid of them,” says Rashidah Grinag, director of PUEBLO, a community organization that advocates for the Oakland’s low-income residents.
She says many neighborhoods watch groups just try to push undesirable people out of their area, without a lot of thought to long-term consequences.
“It requires some reflection on the part of folks who are involved in public safety efforts with their NCPC,” she says. “And do some reflection and say, what’s my real intent here?”
The Oakland Police Department will deploy 40 new officers in May. Two more academies are planned for this year. And consultants are helping the department go back to a community policing strategy: they’ve already gone from two police districts to five, hoping that the commanders will have more time to build community trust.
But Oakland Mayor Jean Quan has said it’ll take five years to fully rebuild the police department. So for now, a lot of crime control is still being worked out block by block.