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Neighborhood watches grow in Oakland

Photo courtesy of Flickr user GHR2009

At around 10 o’clock on a brisk spring morning in Oakland Hills, Danny Cieloha and Esther Fong walk along Davenport Avenue wearing bright orange vests with a neighborhood watch logo and carrying cell phones, in case they need to snap a picture or call for help. They’re looking for  “anything that's unusual,” says Fong.

“Things like young men out of their cars, walking the neighborhood,” adds Cieloha.

Both Cieloha and Fong have been involved in the watch for decades. It’s changed over the years – what was once just community meetings and volunteers walking the neighborhood has grown to include a blog, a listserv, and plans to install cameras and pay patrollers.

“When you think of neighborhood watch, it truly is ‘watch’ in many senses of the word,” says Cieloha. “Being watchful without being intrusive, without being paranoid.”

Oakland Hills is high enough that most of the bungalows have a view of the San Francisco skyline, but it's also just blocks from the junction of 580 and 13 – close enough that you can hear the rush of traffic. That closeness has made the neighborhood a target for home invasions.

Cieloha and Fong greet a neighbor they know as Dada. He points up the block at a house that was broken into recently.

The break-ins on Davenport are part of a citywide trend in Oakland. As the police department is squeezed by budget cuts and layoffs, rates for serious crimes like burglary, robbery and homicide have risen more than 20 percent over last year. Civilians are increasingly taking responsibility for the safety of their own neighborhoods.

Oakland Councilmember Libby Schaaf represents a stretch of Oakland from the Montclair Hills to the High Street corridor. She's a former watch captain herself, and now that she’s in office, she promotes neighborhood watches in her district. She’s seen watches spring up across her district in recent years. Although many watches may be formed in response to rising crime, Schaaf says they can do much more than that.

“Neighborhood watches are not just a crime prevention tool, they are an improvement to your quality of life. They connect you to your neighbors and that makes your experience living in an Oakland neighborhood better. You feel more comfortable knocking on your neighbor’s door to borrow a cup and sugar – and other things, babysitters, block parties, they serve so many purposes in addition to just crime prevention,” says Schaaf.

East Oakland feels a lot different from Oakland Hills. The neighborhood is denser – many people live in apartment buildings – and it has a reputation as a hotspot for violent crime. But it’s only recently that residents like Marlon McWilliams have started organizing watches of their own. In 2010, his new barbershop on 98th and Edes Avenues was broken into twice.

“The first time I got broken into, I had to go find a police officer – ‘cause it was a cold call, it was low priority,” explains McWilliams. “You know second time, nobody came for a day. I'm a business owner, chair of neighborhood watch, area representative – I have the police chief's number in my phone – all these things and I couldn't get anyone to come out to come take a report from me."

And his neighbors were also reluctant to report what they’d seen, McWilliams says, because they didn’t want to be “labeled for retaliation.”

The watch has helped change that, he says. “I think that people are getting to a point now where they are comfortable with stepping up, comfortable with being a resource and also being eyes and ears and not being worried about repercussions,” says McWilliams.

McWilliams says he deliberately kept the watch as simple as possible when he started it.  Unlike the watch on Davenport, there aren’t any plans to organize patrols and listservs, or install cameras. Instead, neighbors text each other when they see anything suspicious.

“More so than anything it’s people living their life but being more attentive,” he says. “We don't want to put anyone in harm’s way, we don't want anyone thinking that they're the police – you know any vigilante justice or anything like that. We just want everyone to be attentive to what is possibly happening.”

Watch groups have faced more scrutiny since watch member George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen in Sanford, Florida. So far in Oakland, there haven’t been any reports of such violent confrontations. But in a city where police response times have slowed and tensions over race and crime can run high, there are worries about watch volunteers taking too much responsibility. That’s not what the program is supposed to be about.

Felicia Verdin helps train and oversee the roughly 800 active watches for the city. Anyone who’s interested can form a group by contacting her office and holding just a single meeting a year. The city connects watch members with local patrol officers and teaches them how to spot and report suspicious activity.

“I hear stories where people get in their car and they follow people, which we don't recommend or condone,” Verdin says. “We never ever advocate anyone going out and going after suspicious people or carrying weapons. We want people to stay safe, that's the most important thing, we want people to stay safe in their community.”

Back on patrol with the Davenport watch, Cieloha and Fong are little out of breath after an hour hiking up and down the Oakland hills. They didn’t spot anything suspicious, no crimes in progress. Cieloha looks pleased. “It's not just seeing crime, it’s the social interaction to care more for each other,” he says.

Maybe the basic act of keeping watch seems too simple a solution to the city’s rising crime rate, but for watch members, it’s more than that: it’s a step toward building stronger communities.

If you live in Oakland and are interested in starting a neighborhood watch, contact Neighborhood Watch Coordinator Brenda Ivy at 510-238- 3091 for more information.

Crosscurrents Oakland