Lake Merritt residents rethink habits after spate of assaults
on February 16, 2011
Lake Merritt, surrounded by upscale apartment buildings, chic cafes and an ever-present stream of joggers, has a reputation for being one of Oakland’s safest and most highly foot-trafficked neighborhoods. But a recent spate of sexual assaults is making some lake path-goers rethink their walking habits.
“At night it’s different here,” said Oakland resident Stacy Z., who declined to give her last name, while walking during her work break around the lake. “In the daytime I feel safe, but at night it’s lonesome. No way would I be walking around here alone.”
“People have been a lot more cautious,” said Steven Ma, president of the Lake Merritt Merchants’ Association and owner of Woody’s Laundromat and Café. “Emails have been going around [saying] to try and not go out at night if you don’t have to.”
The most recent attack came last week when a female victim reported being sexually assaulted and beaten as she returned home to her apartment building near the intersection of Jackson and 8th Streets, a couple blocks from the Lake Merritt BART station. That was the fourth report the Oakland Police Department received of a sexual assault in the Lake Merritt area over the past five months.
Back in September, two women were robbed on their way home in the Lake Merritt neighborhood. During the course of the robberies, the women were also sexually assaulted. One of the reported assaults took place near the intersection of 3rd Avenue and International Boulevard, and the other at E. 18th Street and Lakeshore Avenue. Then in January, the OPD reported a robbery and sexual assault in the Lake Merritt area. According to the police, the woman was also targeted as she came home.
In all three instances, the suspect was described as an African-American man with a medium build, between 5’10 and 6’0 tall.
Oakland police currently do not have a suspect in custody in connection with any of the four incidents. OPD spokesperson Holly Joshi said the police do not know if the same person is responsible for all of the assaults. They say the attacker in last week’s assault appears to have a different motive than in the previous assaults that have taken place near Lake Merritt. The most recent victim was not robbed. Regardless, police are still warning women to be aware.
“This is definitely a matter of high priority,” Joshi said adding that OPD has stepped up patrols in the area, increased intelligence gathering and is talking to merchants and residents like Steve Ma.
“We’re making progress in suspect information from the last case,” Joshi said. “But when victims are brutalized in this manner, it can be hard and traumatic to get sketches and information from them.”
According the Oakland Police crime watch records, non-rape sexual assaults are down 54 percent in Oakland. There are 28 so far this year, compared to 61 this time last year. Burglaries in the Lake Merritt neighborhood currently account for 12.3 percent of robberies in Oakland, and 5.6 percent of aggravated assaults.
Compared to this time last year in the Lake Merritt neighborhood, there has been a 23-percent increase in burglaries, while robberies and aggravated assaults are down by 9 percent and 4 percent respectively.
Along with Steve Ma, Lake Merritt Neighborhood Service Coordinator Haong Banh has been sending out a flurry of community alert flyers in response to the recent Lake Merritt robberies and sexual assaults. Along with other neighbors, Banh and Ma canvassed a targeted area around International Blvd, I-580 and Lakeshore to distribute multi-lingual flyers with safety tips from OPD.
“There’s been a lot of concern and fear lately,” Ma said. “We’ve been telling folks lately, ‘You really have to watch your back.’”
Ma blames the layoff of 80 Oakland officers last summer as a reason for the spike in assaults over the last couple of months. “Criminals know how to take advantage of the short staffing of OPD,” he said. “Right now, it’s important that we keep neighbors informed and organized.”
On February 25, Ma and Huang will join forces with nearby Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils, businesses and residents in the parkway and Lake Merritt districts for a safety walk and social that Ma calls “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” In between 5 and 6 p.m., when people will be coming home from work, volunteering neighbors will gather in several “pods” stationed at different locations. There, volunteers will pass out safety tips and information on support that is available to them in the community. The pods will walk around the designated locations handing out whistles, safety brochures and other information, with the goal, Ma said, of creating a positive and safe presence in the community.
“A lot of people don’t know why they need this information,” Ma said. “But we have to do something.” Ma said this idea sprung up after a neighborhood group in North Oakland did a similar activity when a spike in assaults occurred in their area.
Ma said he and his neighbors will continue to raise awareness of the recent incidences. A women’s self defense class for local residents is planned for the end of the month. “It’s unfortunate that these crimes have happened,” Ma said, “but now is our chance to meet and greet our neighbors and hope they become involved in keeping our neighborhood safe.”
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