After Oakland police cuts, residents dialing Piedmont police
on September 16, 2010
The Upper Rockridge and Montclair neighborhoods, nestled in the hills of North Oakland, have historically had lower crime rates than the rest of the city. But with a rash of non-violent crimes occurring shortly after the layoff of 80 Oakland police officers—and after the police department changed its strategy for handling non-emergency crimes—some residents have been calling another city’s police department for help: Piedmont’s.
Oakland residents “have been requesting more police service,” said Piedmont Police Captain John Hunt. According to Hunt, his team of dispatchers has gotten 20 to 30 percent more calls from the Oakland border areas over the last two months. “We’ve had to gently tell them that we can only answer for Piedmont,” Hunt said.
Neighbors have been sending the Piedmont Police Department “thank you” messages—some in the form of emails, others as plates of chocolate chip cookies—for what they believe to be an increase in patrols for the bordering Oakland communities. But Hunt was quick to point out that although Piedmont police were the first to respond to an incident on Oakland’s Masonic Avenue several months ago, they are not regularly patrolling Oakland neighborhoods. “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but we are not providing extra patrol,” said Hunt.
Because of layoffs related to the city’s budget shortfall, the Oakland Police Department has been forced to re-prioritize the types of crimes that officers are sent to investigate. Oakland police officers are no longer dispatched to the scenes of most non-violent or non-emergency crimes. To free up patrol officers, the OPD is asking residents to report non-violent crimes using Coplogic, a computerized reporting system. Frank Castro, chair of the Greater Rockridge Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council, said that the OPD’s top two priorities are now responding to calls for in-progress crimes and to those at “hot spots” known for higher rates of murders, shootings and gang-related activities.
The layoff of 80 police officers this July also included the elimination of all 63 Oakland problem solving officer positions—officers who work with communities to resolve quality of life issues like vandalism, traffic issues, or gang activity. In Area 1, which encompasses the Rockridge and Montclair areas, all 26 problem solving officers were either laid off or reassigned to patrol duty. “There’s no more traffic division and we lost our walking officer on College Avenue,” Castro said at an August NCPC meeting, “but we still have an interest as citizens in making sure the beats are safe.”
The Oakland Police Department did not return interview requests for this story.
This August, 38 non-violent crimes were reported in the Greater Rockridge area on SpotCrime.com, an interactive city map showing neighborhood crime by activity. In July 18 were reported, and 22 in June. Last year, only 13 non-violent crimes were reported on SpotCrime in August, with 15 in July and 12 in June.
However, at last month’s NCPC meeting OPD Lieutenant Freddie Hamilton estimated that some kinds of crime are actually down in Area 1. Robberies are down by 11 percent, he said, while citywide, crime has decreased by 17 percent.
Castro does not directly attribute the increase of non-violent crimes in his neighborhood to the loss of the city’s problem solving officers. “It’s too early too tell what other effects there may be in the future,” Castro said.
Castro is encouraging residents to keep reporting all incidents of crime, even if in some cases OPD officers won’t arrive to take a report. Castro uses the Rockridge Neighborhood Watch Network and Rockridge NCPC email groups to describe recent crimes in the area and remind residents to report online. Continuing to both call and report crimes online to the OPD is important, Castro believes, because the number of police officers assigned to each neighborhood depends on the reported crime rate. “If people don’t call,” he said, “the crime statistics could go down, along with police staffing.”
The Coplogic system can only work if residents participate, he added. “Oakland PD could have the best technology in the world,” Castro said, “but if people aren’t going online to report all non-violent crime then the technology becomes useless.” However, he points out, many people, including the elderly, don’t have computer access and would have to go to a public library or a kiosk at a police station to file an online report, which could be inconvenient.
While Rockridge residents have been calling their neighboring city’s police for help, it’s not clear if this is the case in other Oakland border areas. Not long after the police layoffs in July, several residents at a meeting of the Golden Gate NCPC reported witnessing Emeryville and Berkeley police officers responding to calls in their neighborhood. One resident said that in an emergency she calls the Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville police departments and sees “who comes first.”
But Berkeley Police Department Sergeant Mary Kusmiss said calls from Oakland residents for Berkeley police services have not increased significantly in the last few months. “We have always received occasional calls from the City of Oakland community,” Kusmiss said, adding that Oakland residents “do not want to wait for Oakland police as they feel that they are not getting service fast enough.” These calls are infrequent, Kusmiss said.
The Berkeley Police Department’s standard procedure is to evaluate whether the call is about a crime in progress and whether it’s urgent in nature; if so, Kusmiss said, the department will send patrol units to border locations to handle the situation until Oakland police officers can arrive.
According to Police Chief Ken James, Emeryville’s department has also not experienced an increase in calls from bordering neighborhoods. However, James said that during the last month he has read Oakland residents complaining about OPD’s response time on Emeryville’s online community message boards. “If we do get an Oakland resident calling and asking for our assistance,” James said, “all our dispatcher can tell them is ‘You’re in Oakland—sorry, we can’t respond.’”
Some Oakland residents may be turning towards private security. Al Gentry, a residential sales representative for Bay Area Alarms, which sells home and commercial alarm systems, said that he’s been getting more calls from Rockridge residents considering opening accounts with his company. In August, 2009, Gentry recalls receiving a weekly average of two or three leads—or calls from prospective clients—in the Upper Rockridge area. This August, Gentry said he was getting an estimated four or five leads per week.
Gentry said that having a home alarm system can encourage the police to respond to a crime in progress, even if it’s non-violent. “Our cameras and patrol services can report an in-progress crime happening,” Gentry said. “It’s more likely that OPD will dispatch a police unit when a security alarm goes off and someone from our patrol service comes to inventory the scene first.” But with alarm systems costing up to $600 for installation in an average size house, plus an additional $90 per month to receive patrol services, Gentry points out, “It’s not a solution that a lot of families in this economy can afford.”
In Piedmont, Captain Hunt said he sympathizes with Oakland residents and the difficulties facing a smaller police force. “We will continue to monitor OPD radio to see if they need any of our assistance,” he said, “and try to be more diligent when we can.”
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