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Yes, it’s a crime-riddled metropolis, however Oakland, CA could be an absolutely fabulous place to live. It boasts perfect weather and a beautifully diverse terrain peppered with quaint, craftsman bungalows, beautiful Victorians and Spanish style houses. The downtown sector has a ghost-town quality to it at the close of the business day, but a burgeoning art movement brings new hope to Oakland’s nightlife. Culturally, Oaktown has a fascinating history with a population that’s heterogeneous in virtually every way. Alas, I have no problem cautioning those considering moving there to think twice. A brief resident of the city myself, our family now lives literally 5 minutes outside of Oakland, in a little town called Alameda where we had to trade in a sense of cultural solidarity for something far more important: Safety.

Late last year, NPR published a story that struck a chord with me called With Robberies Up, Oakland Residents Turn To Private Cops.” As the title suggests, many Oakland residents have given up on the tax-funded Police department and pooled their money to hire private security forces. The reason is simple: Oakland’s been hit by a spike in crime over the last few years, and with the recession drying up local tax revenues, the OPD lost over 200 officers leaving them with their hands tied – they’re simple outmanned.

Neighborhoods of all incomes are in the middle of a robbery epidemic. NPR adds that overall, robberies in Oakland are up 24% over the past year, with armed robberies up 45%. As a person with close ties to the city, I wouldn’t be surprised if that number is an underestimation. Victims of such crimes have told me that sadly, many are carried out by teens – including an incident where group of carpooling commuters lined up on the sidewalk were robbed “drive by style” in North Oakland last fall. The stories are ominously numerous. A family friend of ours was held up while securing his toddler in her car seat in the Fruitvale region; a friend’s elderly neighbor was robbed and beaten in her driveway in the Glenview district and the cases of car vandalization are off the charts.

The problem isn’t merely the crimes themselves, but the sheer frequency of them. Scores of individuals are rightly concerned for their safety and that of their family and friends. Relocating isn’t an option for many since Oakland is relatively affordable for renters (compared to the inflated cities & burbs surrounding it), and countless homeowners would be forced to sell their homes for a loss at this time, courtesy of the most recent recession & real estate bust. With an outgunned police department, it’s no shock that some residents have decided to take matters into their own hands.

Dakin Ferris, family man & resident of the city’s Rockridge region explains why he supports the use of private neighborhood patrol, “… We need to take care of our personal security. The city of Oakland is not going to do it. ” Currently, over 600 households pay $20 a month for patrols in clearly marked cars to run 12 hours a day, Monday through Saturday. Rockridge isn’t an anomaly, many other communities, including a quaint, eclectic family friendly area called Maxwell Park, have organized to hire private security (armed and unarmed) as stand in cops.

But there are chinks in this newfound armor. Not all residents are down with the idea of private security. First off, they only provide safety for the homes paying for the service, naturally, but several residents have sound reasons for their hesitation nonetheless.

Rockridge resident, attorney & neighborhood activist Nicole Aruda says, “A lot has been made that this crowd funding campaign was democracy in action. I don’t believe it.” She told NPR that the organizers of the “crowd funding” efforts left hundreds of neighbors out of the discussion and evaded the opposition of the outspoken.

“And the rest of us, who have not signed up with this company, there’s no accountability for us,” she says. “If there are problems with patrols in the neighborhood, we have no one to go to because we’re not contractees. The security company has no responsibility to us. There’s no transparency. It’s important to get outside your own echo chamber and really listen to people of differing opinions,” Aruda continues. “That hasn’t happened here.”

A serious concern of Aruda’s is the very real potential for racial profiling. She has a teenage son whose friends could be seen as suspect in their own neighborhood. With the Trayvon Martin tragedy so fresh in our collective memories, Aruda certainly has grounds for such fears.

Whether private security will be an effective deterrent to Oaktown’s crime spree remains to be seen. OPD spokeswoman Johnna Watson claims, “We welcome the extra set of eyes and ears… Any help that we can receive to reduce crime in our city is good for all of us.” But apprehension looms, as do concerns that private security could generate a whole new set of injustices. Ironically, Lower Rockridge city councilman Dan Kalb says, “I hope [the patrols are] successful, but they’re certainly not a substitute for police… As long as we understand that — that it’s a supplement for the time being — then let’s all hope it works.” On that note, let’s hope city government can inform the people of Oakland just how long the OPD will require supplementation for their basic safety.

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  • G

    This maybe a good idea short term, but long term there will be problems in the future.

    I am not a fan of “private policing”. Oakland’s problem are still that same, but only a few can afford the “private policing” so the remainder of the residents are left to suffer.

    Usually private security staff is an under paid field and under skilled, with a high turnover rate.

    Are subcontractors doing the background checks (which are very expensive if done properly) of the staff? And who reviews and interviews the potential staff? I certainly would want to know who is riding around MY Community.

    As far as the private force, how well are they trained and what are they trained in?
    What is the company’s liability as versus the paying residents of the Oakland community if an incident (such as the Trayvon Martin incident) with a resident (paying and non-paying) or suspect takes place?

  • I live in Oakland, and in an area characterized as one which would be inclined to hire private security. (Not so sure anyone is trying to disconnect from Oakland, most of my neighbors are avid supports of the “Town.”

    I don’t feel particularly unsafe, even though my spec rime free streak ran out a few days ago who my car was broken into and my rear window was smashed.

    There are real issues of police accountability, police presence, and the police actually connecting with the community. There was an recent jnternal survey that cinfirmed the OPD has low morale and feels under appreciated and under supported.

    It is a really tough lime in how to solve the problem. I think private security could potentially provide eyes on the street which deters crime, and why I support the idea of private patrols. There is also the very real concern about racial profiling. Many areas in Oakland are very mixed, and it would be difficult to profile.

    But I guess one thing that has been effective jnmy own neighborhood has been a nightly neighborhood patrol. No weapons, just groups of 3-6 and flashlights. The eyes in the street deter crime and help build stronger connections between neighbors. If OPD would engage the neighborhood in this way, we could make big strides.