Oakland Neighbors Band Together Against Crime
Even though 40 new recruits will graduate this month from the Oakland Police Department's academy, OPD is still severely understaffed due to major layoffs in 2010. Slow police response times and steady levels of crime have some residents looking to find their own solutions to crime in their neighborhoods.
Dabney Lawless is a young mom who works from home in Oakland’s middle-class Oakmore district.
"This is an area that I walk with my son everyday," she said, pointing down the street.
Lawless said she feels wary these days when strolling here with her toddler. Last year, home burglaries in her area jumped 72 percent.
"One woman up here on the corner had a dramatic crime take place," Lawless said. "Someone held her up at gunpoint in front of her son and hit her with a gun."
Lawless began to revive her neighborhood watch group several years ago. Some watch members chipped in to hire private security patrols. Then Lawless started using Next Door -- a social networking site that allows neighbors to keep each other up to date on everything from babysitters and restaurants to crime.
Lawless said all this organizing paid off on a recent Friday night when a man knocked on her door at 8:00 p.m.
"I looked through the peephole, and we said, 'What can we help you with?'"
Lawless says the man told her he was from General Electric and that he needed to look at her phone lines.
"It made no sense," she said. "It was obviously something very suspicious."
Lawless used the website to send out an alert to her neighbors.
"This was a very good tool. So much so that I believe there were people who did not open their door as a result," Lawless said. "And it was very touching, and it made me realize what a great neighborhood we live in that three of my neighbors called me personally to check in to see if we were OK."
This kind of neighborhood organizing is on the rise across Oakland. Brenda Ivey, OPD’s neighborhood watch coordinator, said the department helps launch about 20 new groups every month.
"It’s really been a surge," Ivey said, "Because people want to protect their neighborhoods and know what to do."
Ivey says there are currently about 900 neighborhood watch groups across the city, with heavier concentrations in the more affluent areas.
OPD’s Johanna Watson said more residents and merchants are also hiring private patrols.
"We’re seeing private security firms become more and more integrated with the department," Watson said. "When you have other resources that you can bring in to help reduce crime or prevent crime, they’re a fantastic deterrent."
At a recent meeting in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, police officer Joel Aylsworth gave a breakdown of the area's recent crime trends. Parts of Fruitvale have long struggled with street robberies and prostitution.
"I had almost 20 [robberies] a month," Aylsworth told residents. "This month I had 12. Not to say I’m happy about that -- but at least there was a decrease."
About 20 residents turned out for the monthly meeting. Oakland resident Charlene Bell was among them. She lives about two miles down the road in a different neighborhood, but she said she is worried.
"What’s going on here is coming my way," Bell said.
Bell has been taking pictures of graffiti near her apartment building -- graffiti she suspects could be gang-related.
"I don’t want to take a picture and send it down to the Oakland Police Department, and it gets lost in the paper," Bell said. "I want to connect with someone in the gangs department. They can look at this picture that I have and tell me, 'Oh yeah, we know that gang,' so they can track them."
Bell is also pushing for surveillance cameras to be installed at her apartment building because she said neighbors often use her driveway as a shortcut.
"And they get assaulted right there. And when they get to a certain point they snatch their purse," said Bell. "Well, see I want to get them guys. You ain’t gonna rob nobody in this driveway. Bottom line. "
Bell said her neighborhood watch group stopped meeting years ago when crime in her area went down. Now she’s considering reviving it.
Experts say watch groups can be effective at reducing crime. But they can also be tough to organize and sustain in areas where there are lots of renters who may be less invested in the neighborhood.
It is not clear if the neighborhood watch has reduced crime in Dabney Lawless’ Oakmore neighborhood, but something else good has happened.
"I’ve definitely gotten to know my neighbors," Lawless said. "I know the people that live there. I know the people."
Lawless says that alone makes her feel safer.