Shopkeepers call on city leaders to stop break-ins, burglaries plaguing businesses
on October 19, 2023
Small business owners say Oakland’s city officials are failing to address a serious crime wave.
In September, the city did not submit a completed application that would have secured Oakland a portion of a $256 million state grant for police funding. Now, several small business owners in Oakland are asking whether city officials are doing their part.
“I just want the people who are given the job to lead Oakland to look at themselves in the mirror and ask themselves if they are doing the best they can for the city, and if they’re not and they can’t do the job, they should just retire,” said Kaykay Itua, owner of African Caribbean Food Market in downtown Oakland.
Mayor Sheng Thao addressed the grant error during the State of the City address on Tuesday.
“We missed an opportunity with the retail theft grant,” she said. “As Mayor, I own that, and the bucks stops with me.”
Thao said the city is hiring a grants coordinator and adding grant management expertise, as well as upgrading the city’s grant management software. “We will learn from this experience and do better for our city,” she said.
According to the latest Oakland Police Department weekly crime report, robbery is up 59% and burglary 67% from 2022 to 2023.
Son Tran, owner of Le Cheval, and Parminder Dhingra, a 7-Eleven franchise owner, have both closed at least one of their businesses, citing increased customer car break-ins and burglaries.
Dhingra owns two 7-Eleven franchises in Oakland and previously owned one in San Francisco. He expressed frustration that calling the police has had little effect on theft this year.
A recent break-in at his Oakland store was caught on security footage and shows burglars fleeing his store just as police arrive. Dhingra explained that though the burglars weren’t in the store when police arrived, he thought it was clear that individuals fleeing the scene were the culprits who broke three doors and stole cigarettes.
Dhingra said he attended a recent Zoom meeting with City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas and Oakland police to ask why the police didn’t chase the burglars.
“I asked them a question. They were robbing me, police were there, why didn’t they chase them? And they said we have a no chase policy in Oakland,” he said.
According to the city website, police “pursuits may only be initiated when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the fleeing individual committed a violent forcible crime and/or a crime involving the use of a firearm, or probable cause that the individual is in possession of a firearm.” In Dhingra’s case, there was no visible firearm or violent crime being committed.
Dhingra says he doesn’t want to close his Oakland stores, particularly his Harrison Street location, because of its sentimental value as the first store he owned in the U.S. But that store was robbed Tuesday, which brings the store’s losses to over $10,000 this year. Dhingra said his Piedmont Avenue location’s loss is at $21,350.
“We hope. We try. That’s why we try to get city meetings. Hopefully they can help us,” he said.
Patrols and cameras
Instead of closing more stores, Dhingra attended City Council meetings with other store owners and attended a strike in front of Le Cheval on Sept. 26. Many business owners elected to close their stores for either a partial or full day in support of the strike.
At a news conference a week later, the mayor revealed that this year the city has raised the number of foot patrol officers for Oakland from six to 12, increased police academies from four to six and begun hiring police officers. Additionally, Sheng said a recent conversation with Gov. Gavin Newsom led to $1.2 million being given to Oakland to purchase 300 security cameras. She said the cameras would be used to record evidence for the district attorney, and if City Council signs off, the cameras can be running in approximately six weeks.
“I truly believe that we deserve better, all of us. Whether you’re a business, an individual, part of a community, we all deserve better than to feel as if we feel unsafe,” Sheng said at the news conference.
Anxious shop owners
Itua, originally from Nigeria, opened African Caribbean Food Market in 1998 with her late husband. Though she was unable to attend the September protest, she agreed that the city’s failure to gain access to the funds is a problem for the community.
“I think that we pay so much and, coming from a third world country, I feel like it’s badly managed. It almost feels like we’re in a third world country sometimes, when there is a crime and you call the police and they don’t come,” said Itua, 49.
Itua also worries about the safety of her three children. She said she recently witnessed an organized car break-in a block from her store and now feels it’s necessary to remind her family that their lives are more important than material things.
“I have anxiety about it,” Itua said.
While Tran has recently closed his restaurant due to the crime, others like Itua and Dhingra hope that the city can turn things around.
Itua cited the city’s beautiful weather and cultural diversity as reasons to have hope.
“This is my home, I don’t desire to live anywhere else,” she said.
Not everyone agrees that more funding for police is the solution. Jonas Voiron, soon to be owner of Ratto’s International Deli and Market, has lived in Oakland his entire life and will take over once his mother retires. The family-owned business has been in Oakland since 1897. Voiron doesn’t think more money for police will address the underlying issues.
“Put it back in the community so people can have access to food and supplies,” he said.
(Top photo: Kaykay Itua in front of her family-owned African Caribbean Food Market, by Walter Marino)
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