Thousands of people were watching the San Francisco Giants closing in on their first World Series since 2002. But the 14 Oakland residents sitting in a dimly lit auditorium had something else on their mind: how to prevent crime. “I know I am preaching to the choir,” Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said to the sparse audience in a room built for 250. “Many of you are here because you are already involved.”
As part of National Crime Prevention Month this October, the Oakland Police Department is collaborating with the city’s Neighborhood Services Coordinators—a citizen branch of the OPD working on crime prevention and problem-solving—to promote awareness of issues such as victimization, volunteerism and creating safer communities. Batts attributed last year’s 15 percent decrease in violent crime to community involvement and crime prevention, recognizing neighborhood crime prevention councils, Neighborhood Watch groups, and faith-based organizations as assets in a city troubled by crime.
The collaboration has produced a month-long series of community workshops. Wednesday’s workshop, the last of the series, was facilitated by four Oakland police investigators and focused on theft prevention. Statistics and tips on how Oakland residents can keep their homes, families and identities safe were shared during the two-hour session.
Sergeant Simon Rhee, one of workshop’s featured criminal investigators, addressed identity theft. “Criminals are evolving and getting smarter,” he said. “It’s a low-risk crime with high rewards.”
Rhee advised residents to buy a shredder for safely disposing of documents containing personal information and recommended using cash or a credit card for purchases. Cash is not linked to personal information, he said, and it’s safer to use borrowed credit card money than a debit card linked to one’s bank account.
Lieutenant James Meeks moved into a discussion on the difference between burglary and robbery, reminding residents that they must now report burglaries online through Coplogic, a computerized reporting system. Officer layoffs this summer have meant that Oakland police no longer go to the scene of low-priority crimes that do not involve injuries, like burglaries. Burglaries, Meeks said, are building break-ins with the intent to commit theft. Robberies, on the other hand, require both theft and a form or threat of violence used to deprive someone of their property.
“Think,” Meeks said, looking at the handful of attendees, “if you were a criminal, how would you go about robbing your house?”
He said that most criminals burglarize their own neighborhoods because they are more familiar with the streets, making it easier to know which victims to target.
“I love this town,” said Meeks, who was born and raised in Oakland, and still lives here with his family. “I’m not going to let thugs take over this city.” Both he and has daughter have been burglarized and acknowledged that it can happen to anyone.
Meeks said it’s up to neighbors in deciding how to prevent crime. “You all have got to talk to one another. Make your home and communities a hard target by reporting suspicious behavior.”
Next, Officer Steve Bang talked about how to protect oneself on the street against robberies, and said that people are increasingly being targeted at home, at BART stations and through Craigslist. Bang said his reports show that criminals are going after more Asians because of a common belief that this ethnic group keeps large sums of money at home. Criminals will look for shoes on porches and shrines in the front yard to spot an Asian residence, he said.
Bang also reported that police have seen a spike in the number of people being robbed within a few blocks of BART stations. He said the majority of victims are alone, texting or talking on the phone while walking, with most of the crimes happening in the early evening. One workshop attendee raised her hand to share advice she uses in her neighborhood. She and her neighbors have a distinctive noise they make when they are in trouble while walking down the street. “It’s just not another noise in the neighborhood,” she said. Bang nodded in agreement and said this is just one of the many ways residents can help keep one another safe.
Bang said that Craigslist has been another popular outlet for criminals who lure victims with advertisements offering vehicles and electronics for half of the market value—“First person who brings cash gets it,” these ads promise. Criminals will use the address of an abandoned house as the meeting spot, then escort the victim, who is usually carrying hundreds or thousands of dollars with them, to the back of the house where they are held at gunpoint and robbed, Bang said.
“If it’s too good to be true,” Bang said about these false advertisements, “it probably is.” Bang advises residents who use Craigslist to use the police department as a meeting space for buying and selling goods.
The overarching theme of the workshop was the need for neighbors to band together, especially now that 80 fewer Oakland police officers are patrolling the streets. The diversity of community crime prevention groups is encouraging, Batts said, but can also make working together more difficult. “We don’t always play nice in the sandbox with one another,” he said, referring to disagreements between different neighborhood organizations on coordinating crime prevention efforts. “We have a lot of chiefs, but not enough followers. We need to come together as a team.”
National Crime Prevention month follows a report published in August by CQ Press, an independent academic and professional publisher based in Washington, D.C., that found that the violent crime rate in Oakland is much higher than that of other large cities in California. According to this report, Oakland’s violent rate is nearly double that of Sacramento, and 2.5 times that of Long Beach, a city with very similar demographics to Oakland. Oakland’s overall violent crime rate was 1,592 per 100,000 people, nearly twice the state average.
The report was compiled using crimes reported to the FBI in six categories—murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and motor vehicle theft. A total of 332 metropolitan areas and 393 cities were considered in the survey, using statistics released by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
Workshop attendee Lois, who declined to give her last name because she’s been a victim of a crime, said she came to the Wednesday event for results and effective solutions, but left feeling more frustrated. She lives in East Oakland and said she’d been robbed on multiple occasions in the last year. “The police don’t come out. They don’t have enough staff anymore,” she said. “So how are victims supposed to protect themselves? I don’t have money to pay for a monitored security system.”
Batts encouraged neighbors to continue being proactive. “I want people to get on their feet,” Batts said. “Bad people are like roaches. If you shine light on them then they go away.”
Wednesday was the last of three workshops for Crime Prevention Month, which will end with a Crime Prevention Fair on Friday, Oct. 29th from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Frank Ogawa Plaza.