A friend of mine has an expression that he uses, tongue partly in cheek, to help keep the difficulties of his life in perspective: “A problem isn’t really a problem if you can solve it with money.” Like all good aphorisms, it’s reductive; it elides a lot of complications about real life, but still manages to be true and helpful in some way.

Residents of several Oakland neighborhoods, including my own, are currently testing the power of money to solve a big, serious problem: crime.

The story has been covered extensively in newspapers and online (including on this site), so you know the headline: private neighborhood security patrols are gaining popularity in Oakland. I live in the Golden Gate neighborhood, where an industrious, fed-up group of residents has been gathering information—and momentum—toward hiring a security patrol. This follows similar efforts in a stretch of the Hills, Rockridge, and other areas of the city where residents have been motivated to fund some kind of deterrent that goes beyond the local police presence, such as it is.

Much of the coverage about the neighborhood security patrols, and reader reaction to that coverage, has touched on the wider governmental context that has led to these efforts and their political (and even ethical) implications.

Robert Gammon’s East Bay Express blog post on the matter sketched out a “case for private security” that discussed City taxes, police compensation, and questions of how scarce resources should be apportioned. Gammon’s piece drew comments and letters that engaged those questions of resource allocation, lamented the socioeconomic antecedents of crime, and, in one case, labeled private security patrol campaigns “Randite-Libertarian antisocial nonsense” on “the wrong side” of “the class war.”

On this site, a Rockridge resident recently expressed her dismay about the movement toward private patrols in her neighborhood, raising a number of objections about accountability, democracy, and the disproportionate impact of law enforcement on people who are poorer, browner, and generally more marginalized than she (and I). She pleaded for an approach to crime that addresses its root causes in income inequality and poverty.

We should certainly be having a public conversation about how the City funds and manages law enforcement. (I think we are. I also think we have a long way to go.) Questions of class, of poverty and unemployment, and what this all means for our sense of shared social burden are important for those of us who care about the maintenance of civil society.

But however valuable that context might be, it doesn’t address the immediate sense of many Oakland residents that they are not safe—a feeling I understand better than I wish I did.

These private security patrols are fundamental responses to the physical and emotional reality of crime in Oakland. Steve Kirsh, the organizer of one of the security patrol campaigns in the Rockridge neighborhood, told Sam Roudman of TechPresident, “We shouldn’t have to do this, but we need to do this.”

In that one sentence—really with the one word “but”—Kirsh makes it clear that concerns over physical safety trump any governmental, political, or philosophical questions that these efforts might bring up. When people and businesses are being robbed (and worse) in broad daylight on busy streets, debates about class warfare and the long-term or root causes of crime tend to slip down one’s list of priorities rapidly, and understandably.

Crime has many causes. It has many effects. But what it does not have in abundance are short-term solutions. I can’t bring myself to condemn people who are attempting to address the problem with money. It’s reductive, and it elides a lot of complications, but it might still be helpful in the short term.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. See our guidelines.

17 Responses

  1. Ann Nomura

    I felt much like the author of this piece until witnessing first hand patrols failures in my neighborhood. I live in the Dimond and have many neighbors who vigorously support private patrols.They love the idea and execution. My problem/concern with the patrols is, that it has stopped problem solving, organizing, political accountability and working toward real solutions. People feel they bought a solution, they paid for it, so it’s fixed.

    In the Dimond crime generally starts in the Fruitvale/MacArthur Blvd business district bus hub. If crime in this area gets out of hand, it generally spreads into the neighborhoods and goes unchecked until it reaches Montclair (this gets OPD and Libby Schaaf’s immediate attention) or neighbors organize to calm the situation in the business district.

    Crime, general lawlessness and chaos began to rise recently in the Dimond. Libby and Neighborhood leaders got a letter of concern about a crime wave. Libby ignored it and neighborhood leaders said attend a meeting or pay for private patrol. There was also a flurry of success stories about private patrols. Meanwhile we had daily car burglaries at Peet’s and in the CVS Pharmacy lot and would then see the same cars and burglars cruising the neighborhood.

    As is always the pattern when we ignore rising crime in the business area, it escalated and we had a triple armed robbery and police chase with 2 officers injured. A recent burglary victim (in a patrol district) doesn’t feel comfortable reporting to list, meanwhile neighbors whine that all this talk of crime is a downer and we should pay for patrols and move on.

    Crime in our area follows patterns, patrols don’t address this or eliminate the need for neighbors to solve problems and understands what happens in front of their house. Patrols do make people who pay for them feel better, but they don’t solve regional problems and they create apathy and excuse for not understanding what is happening in you front yard.

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  2. R2D2II

    “My problem/concern with the patrols is, that it has stopped problem solving, organizing, political accountability and working toward real solutions. ”

    Excellent points. Perhaps the first task is organizing to throw the incompetent Council members and Mayor out of office.

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  3. Len Raphael

    Ann, opposing private patrols because they’re effective at reducing local crime in the short run but useless or worse in the long run isn’t going to change the minds of people who figure less crime now is worth hecka more than the promise of less crime in the future when they have good reason to doubt local government’s ability to reduce crime..

    It’s not clear from your post whether patrols did or did not lower certain kinds of crime noticeable in your part of town.

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  4. Oakie

    I had been connected with Dimond in the past and have following the Dimon List over many years. I am familiar with Ann’s participation.

    Based solely on the chatter in the List, I would challenge Ann’s “facts.”

    As the whole Patrol Controversy is only several months old, I can say that the amount of participation on the List commenting on suspicious persons and vehicles has only increased over the recent months (due to the rising level of burglaries and particularly armed robberies). Calls for Libby and the mayor to pay attention to this and find solutions are still very regular, and again have only increased.

    I have noticed no one who has commented that they or others have “stopped problem solving, organizing, political accountability and working toward real solutions. People feel they bought a solution, they paid for it, so it’s fixed.”

    That’s only one source I have, but usually it follows pretty well the mood of the neighborhood. Where is the data Ann is using to make such absolute and stark statements of what the patrols have caused?

    R2DII is right: the only real way we will ever solve our crime problems is to throw the bums out of office and find people who have a clue about what works to make crime manageable.

    The problem is twofold; we have too many voters clinging to their aging 60’s dogma that has proven a failure for our city and a dearth of dissident voices from people who can distinguish things that have proven to work (i.e. the New York Miracle) and things they hope will work but won’t (i.e. Operation Ceasefire–how’s that working for us?), or even worse, throw money at organizations like Youth Uprising, where taxpayer money is showered and no real objective proof is given showing it does ANYTHING to reduce crime (where the publicity seeking director is dubiously paid $300,000 to lead).

    Bratton was brought in by the mayor for a dog and pony show. Nothing else. If we would actually allow him to SAY what he would implement and actually DO IT here, it is plausible that we can give up our title of the Most Robbed residents in the country.

    But to be honest, I ain’t holding my breath. That’s why organizing ourselves and voluntarily paying for patrols, as weak a solution as that is, still represents a far far preferable idea than giving this city more tax money to spend the way they envision.

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  5. alexinoakland

    Private security has existing in this country for a very long time. President Lincoln hired private security (the Pinkertons) to provide for his personal safety (worth nothing that 40-50 years later the Pinkertons were involved in some unsavory activities).

    The city of San Francisco has had private security since its inception. In fact, the city charter explicitly calls out private security. They are called the SF Patrol Special Police. They go through training, can carry firearms, etc., and are usually hired by businesses, neighborhoods, event organizers, etc.

    The city of Cincinnati also has something similar that is also baked into the city’s charter.

    Neighborhoods all over the country do this. Its not unique to Oakland really.

    Not saying this is the right answer or the best answer, but do feel some historical context should be part of the discussion.

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  6. alexinoakland

    SF Patrol Special – http://sfpatrolspecpolice.com/

    Cincinnati Private Police – http://cincinnatiprivatepolice.org/about.htm

    Now, both these cases are a little different that a private security guard company as is being discussed by some Oakland neighborhoods. These private security officers (e.g. SF, Cincinnati) are more tightly regulated, e.g., they fall until the police commissioner in SF and in many cases have a good deal of training. While the security firms being discussed by Oakland neighborhoods operate more independently although they are still regulated by the state, e.g., licenses officers must have, reports on any discharge of a firearm are required.

    Still, it does demonstrate that private citizens paying for extra services when they don’t feel they are getting what they need from the city has been going on on for a long long time.

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  7. Len Raphael

    Alex, fascinating piece of SF living history. Apparently there are only 40 or so remaining special police in SF, down from a couple of hundred. i can understand why SFPD police union has whittled down their powers over the years because essentially it is privatizing the police function to some extent.

    http://ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=68688

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  8. Aaron Parr

    This “discussion” is a clear expression of the class divide in this country, and evidence of the erosion of civic responsibility within the bubble of what remains of the middle class. Basically the wealthier citizens of Oakland are eager to pay for their own protection, but not willing to put forth the same time or resources to local government or community. There is nothing else to this. And the future if we continue down this path of privatization will be quite similar to Sao Paolo’s present in which the Private Security Personnel are often very corrupt and unaccountable.

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  9. Len Raphael

    Aaron, it wouldn’t be necessary to privatize policing this way if voters pushed their elected leaders to substantially reduce the compensation of police and fire, maybe just benefits but probably pay and benefits especially for all new hires. But that’s not going to happen because the other city unions and many voters consider it to be a “race to the bottom.”

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  10. alexinoakland

    Aaron – I think the issue is that some people feel they are paying a lot in taxes and don’t see much of the services they expect in return. You are just making gross generalizations because you come to the “discussion” with your mind made up.

    Your argument is that the sky would fall if people hire private security, it is the first step in a slippery slope to “the end.” If that were the case, then why hasn’t the nightmare scenario you outline not already happened since private security has existing in this country since the early 1800s.

    I think it would be a much more interesting discussion if the so called wealthy folks you point to were willing to sit down with you and go through their monthly budget. Then you can determine for yourself just how rich they are. If they were really that rich they’d be in Palo Alto and wouldn’t be worried about any of this.

    Try to take a moment to understand the position of others.

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  11. Marie

    Who will pay for patrols to keep the families and residents of East Oakland or Fruitvale safe?

    If crime is making residents of wealthy neighborhoods feel physically threatened, imagine the way kids and adults growing up in less economically prosperous neighborhoods feel. This is the real liability of private patrols: it draws money and effort away from solving the whole problem, and instead allocates it to solving the problem for some people. Imagine if all those well-connected, legally literate residents threw their weight at the City Council to hire the number of police that we need and give them the clarity to operate well and safely. No one has to feel fear walking their own streets.

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  12. Terry Christian

    Aaron and Marie: the cost for the initial pilot in Rockridge is $20 per month per household. This is eminently affordable to nearly everyone in town. Yes, Oakland has lots of poor people, but $20 is not that much money and does not constitute a huge wealth-based barrier to obtaining private security, if you want it. I assert that there are enough households nearly everywhere in town that can afford at least this introductory rate. If that is too expensive for you, or anyone in your community, then private security is the least of your problems. You may be happy that OPD may spend less time in Rockridge.

    Also, many people involved in the organizing effort around the patrols, and those who have signed up, have spent time working with their neighbors, going to NCPC meetings, participating in city council campaigns and other recommended activities to increase public safety. And, yes, some are just paying and forgetting about it, which is fine by me. Despite what many so-called progressives assert, there is absolutely no obligation for anyone to become a social activist as a precondition to take action for their own personal safety.

    Ironically, this effort is, in fact, that of an community getting together, organizing and taking action on its own. I think it’s tempting to portray a disagreement on the community’s conclusion (private security) as a failure of “really” working with the community. Some folks need to realize that organized communities may not necessarily come to the conclusions lefties expect. There’s a consistent theme of private security supporters being out of touch, but I know at the Chabot meeting, the room was filled with my neighbors and parents of my kids’ classmates who supported that way forward.

    I dont know the last time you watched your neighbors’ kids, Aaron, but for me it was yesterday. Community is not always what we think it is

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  13. Guest

    @Marie – I’m a proud leftie and do volunteer with organizations that attempt to address the underlying socio-economic issues for crime in Oakland. That said, I’m also a father and husband with a desire to ensure my family is as safe as possible.

    I don’t think it is fair to castigate folks for spending extra money for a service they desire. No different than me spending extra for faster internet when there are folks in other parts of Oakland who can’t afford Internet or have poor quality internet. The lack of access to Internet is part of a digital divide that denies people access to knowledge and hurts their opportunities in the future. No different than me being able to afford an electric vehicle which saves me a ton of money on gas (and hopefully good for mother earth). Most people take this for granted but gas can be very expensive when you travel a great deal for a job (I was spending $300/month before getting an EV). Think about how hard that would be on someone making $12/hour and how that limits job options. The inability to spend time helping one’s children with homework cause you spend so many hours on public transit cause gas is too much for one to afford.

    Every one of us know people who are better off than we are, and also know people who are less fortunate. You can’t blame me for wanting to do the best I can for my kids and family. At the same time, I also volunteer as does my wife (and my kids will once they are a little older) because we realize we are very fortunate and want to contribute to others.

    All this said, I am in favor of the private patrols and have contributed to them for my area. I’d ask you the following (and I’m not trying to be combative but rather thought provoking) — are their people in Oakland less fortunate that you? Do you have a smartphone? Nicer clothes than some percentage of people? Have you taken a vacation? Do you live in an area that is better than at least one other area in Oakland? If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, then you can afford to go without something so you can donate money to those less fortunate, couldn’t you?

    Even if the answer is “no” then there is likely someplace in the world where there are people less fortunate than you (even if on another continent). Do you donate everything you have beyond the bar minimum to survive to those people? If the answer is “no” then you are really doing the same thing as others, you are choosing to use some of your ‘wealth’ (almost anyone in the US has more wealth than millions of people on the planet) to have goods and services you want. You too, are ‘selfish’ in that way (again, not meant to be an attack).

    Please give this some thought as I think it is hard for you to make the argument you are making if you realize you too are likely ‘wealthy’ compared to others (its all relative).

    The city does take police resources away from so-called wealthier areas and sends them to East Oakland. For example, a special crime unit meant to reduce muggings in North Oakland was mostly re-assigned to deal with more violent crimes in East Oakland. So the taxes those people are paying are actually going to East Oakland and not to their neighborhoods because the police are constrained. Why shouldn’t those people pay a little extra to ensure they get “some” security services? Neighborhoods all over the country do this and have done this for many years. The world has not ended as a result.

    I’d add that I’d be in favor of some way in which those of us that are more fortunate donate some money to help less affluent area hire some private security patrols (kind alike adopt a neighborhood) as I believe safe area adjacent to where I live are a benefit to all. However, I want to see how well these patrols work first before I encourage other areas, where folks have less surplus income, to go down this road. I can afford a $20/month ‘experiment’ as some have called it for 4 months, but many others can’t. What we learn from this can be used to help everyone in Oakland.

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  14. eaugust

    Perfectly reasonable that residents of once bucolic neighborhoods, now riddled with crime (like much of the rest of Oakland) are freaking out. I honestly and completely understand that, and if I didn’t, all I would have to do is open an email, read any local paper, blog, yadda yadda, ad infinitum. Got it. What I don’t get, and what I’m not reading or hearing about is an answer to the question; “what about the rest of us?” What about the rights and concerns of those of us who either don’t have any knowledge of this, or don’t want any part of this? Do we have a say? Are the organizers of these private patrols obligated in any way, by law or by common decency, to ensure that ALL objections and concerns are heard and thoroughly addressed BEFORE they just subject everyone to a private security of their public streets? Who’s on the hook if anyone’s civil rights are violated – the organizers? The security company? What if my neighbor, for any number of reasons, knows nothing about this? Who is responsible to ensure that every single household and property owner in the neighborhood gives their consent to have private security patrolling public streets? These are just a few of the questions that damned-well ought to be answered before private companies start patrolling public streets. Again, I get it – crime is bad and, in SOME places/cases getting worse, people are afraid. But the fears and concerns about private security on our public streets are just as valid as anyone else’s. Catering only to SOME of the fear is divisive and worse. Herein lies a problem being created that may just be as big as the one attempting to be solved.

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  15. Terry Christian

    @eaugust, you’re kidding, right? How do you suggest that people learn “ALL objections and concerns” to any idea (not just this one)? And how do you ensure that those concerns are “addressed” in any way other than essentially granting a single person a veto over an idea?

    The fact is that the streets do not belong to you, me or your neighbors. They belong to the City of Oakland, and they are public spaces regulated by local, state and federal laws. As it stands now, it is entirely within someone’s rights to hire private security in their neighborhood and for that security to use public streets to carry out what they’ve been hired to do (just like the delivery people who bring us our coffee).

    If you want to get at the security companies for something they have done, you can sue them (they are responsible for their employees’ actions, just your employer is for yours) and you can also report the company to the state regulator.

    If you dont want security, dont hire it. If you dont want it in your neighborhood, or on your block, organize your neighbors to not sign up for it. That way, you wont get security on your street.

    The fact is, these streets and this neighborhood dont BELONG to you. You live here. I for one am happy that I, my neighbors and friends or neighborhood businesses dont have to “address” “ALL” concerns before doing what they are legally entitled to.

    The comment is really disingenuous: it’s not about the integrity of the process or accountability, it’s about creating this impossible paradigm of community engagement to kill the idea.

    I am sure you do not hold public protests to the same standard as you do private security. But the deal’s the same: legally permitted activity on public streets.

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  16. LM

    I understand that people want to feel secure. I have had my car stolen (from a very good neighborhood, when I lived in SF) and it sucked. I live in the Golden Gate neighborhood and crime is a regular feature here.

    Yet the idea of private patrols makes me very uncomfortable. Do I want someone armed on the streets who is even less accountable than OPD?

    There is a racial subtext here that has only been touched on a little. The underlying assumption is that wealthier (white) people are protecting themselves from (black and brown) criminals. If you say that’s not the color scheme you have in your mind during this discussion, I don’t believe you. So what happens when a dark skinned teenager visiting a friend in one of these neighborhoods is accosted by a private patrol and roughed up or worse? I wouldn’t want the next George Zimmerman (who shot Trayvon Martin) to be hired by me (or my neighbors).

    I want to second the people who suggest that a bigger discussion needs to happen. Do neighbors just drive up to their homes and shut themselves inside? If so, how does that affect crime? I ride my bike, often in the evenings, throughout the neighborhood. I have neighbors who refuse to bike or walk at night because of safety concerns, even when they are with a group. I wonder, if more of us got out of our houses and cars (our cocoons) and walked through our neighborhood streets, would that make a difference? I don’t know the answer. I know when I lived in a neighborhood with more people out walking at night (again, in SF), I felt totally safe walking alone at night. I wonder if shutting ourselves away from each other, in fear, is part of the problem.

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  17. decentguy

    eaugust.

    I understand where you are coming from. There is no legal obligation, but I attended a private patrol summit in the Dimond district last night. There were multiple people presenting who helped organize private patrols in their areas. Many of them took different approaches and organized the private patrols in slightly different ways. Maxwell Park, Dimond, Laurel, Rockridge, Temescal, Oakmore, were all represented by bu 8-10 residents who have been involved.

    The one thing I noticed that engagement with the neighborhood was a common theme I heard from a number of the presenters. I never got the sense that folks wanted to force something down their neighbors throats. Yes, they want to do this, but they want people in their neighborhoods to buy into it. The folks in Oakmore put together a bit of a “template” to share with others who are trying to do this and neighborhood engagement was a key part of that. In their case, they divided Oakmore into micro-hoods or Districts which were typically a few blocks. Those few blocks had organizers and ‘voted’ on whether to move forward or not (in many cases they have 50-80% of the folks in each District buy-in).

    The folks in Maxwell-Park worked on this for 2 years. They went door to door, they assigned a liaison for each block and reached out to people individually. One of the leaders admitted they were initially skeptical but eventually got on board.

    My sense was that they mostly seemed very sincere about what their neighbors think about this. The more neighbors who buy into the concept, the more hours, coverage, lower the cost, etc., so there is a baked in reason to engage. That said, many of them know there will be folks who don’t like it and they will not be deterred from moving forward. In Oakmore, they have a dedicated person for each District. Part of that person’s job is to get to know the people in his or her area, they have a kick-off meeting so people can get to know the patrol officer, they have email/phones, they recognize it will take a few months for everyone to get to know each other, they seemed to have a process for feedback to ensure feedback goes back to the patrol officer from neighbors.

    This is relatively new to Oakland and they all seemed to admit they are learning and trying to share with others. They themselves share many of the same concerns, about armed security vs un-armed (everyone there had un-armed security), racial profiling, protocol if a crime in progress is witnessed, etc. That doesn’t mean there will not be more leanings and improvements, but the overall attitude was very open.

    I didn’t get the sense there were any right wing radicals or tough on crime zealots. They just seemed like good people who are concerned about their neighborhood, and want to do more than complain.

    There was a cross section of people that represented Oakland’s diversity. One of the organizers was an African American woman, another was a Latino, two were Asian. In fact, despite the assumptions some have, only 3 of the speakers were white (2 males and 1 female). A number were retired with time on their hands and felt they could give back to their community by organizing these things. There were middle aged folks with kids and younger professional types. It looked like Oakland to me.

    There were some people who openly discussed lower cost models for how to bring this to a broader group of people and other less affluent means. Maxwell-Park is a working class area, it ain’t Montclair or Crocker Highlands, but normal folks. There was discussion about how their approach could help other communities. The higher costs tend to be in the hills cause of the topology of winding streets, less visibility, hills, etc. The areas lined up in grids that were flatter seemed to be able to do it for less money.

    I for one would be open to some sort of program where neighborhoods with great means sorta adopt other neighborhoods with less money to help them get these programs off the ground. If security patrols can help reduce burglaries, auto theft, robberies, etc., in various neighborhoods that allows the police to spend even more time of homicides, rapes, child prostitution, etc.

    If done right, after the summit, I now see this as a potentially good thing for everyone. I guess I have more faith in my neighbors than I do in city government, and everyone there seemed very sincere and respectful of others.

    I hope everyone can keep an open mind and find productive ways to communicate. Often, we quickly draw lines and take positions, and that isn’t always the most productive thing to do. I went in open minded but with concerns, but feel much better now.

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