A Haven for Arsonists 

In five years, Oakland has logged 1,538 malicious property torchings but made just 51 arrests in those cases. So much for law and order.

An observer might never guess, judging by the tidy desk and composed manner of Oakland fire investigator Valida Holmes, that the city has experienced a fifteen-year slump in its ability to bring arsonists to justice. But, then again, neither would she. The fire department's most experienced investigator, Holmes was shocked when shown a chart depicting the downward trend in arson-solution rates. "I've never seen anything like this," she said. "I don't know what happened."

Since 1991, Oakland's joint police-fire arson investigation team has declined from overperforming to underperforming to having one of the worst records in the state. But nobody told Holmes — who joined the department in 1991 — nor did she sense it herself.

Of the more than fifteen hundred arsons that plagued the city between 2002 and 2006 — about three hundred per year — only 51 resulted in arrests. That's just over 3 percent. And between 2003 and 2005, the city "cleared" fewer than 2 percent of these crimes. To clear an arson, investigators typically must arrest, charge, and present for prosecution at least one person responsible for the crime. Over the same period, the average statewide clearance rate for arson exceeded 11 percent.

This is a dramatic reversal from the 1980s, when Oakland arson investigators routinely outperformed others in the state — in 1987, a peak year, the city cleared more than 18 percent of the illegal torchings. But now more arson investigations than ever fall short of the courtroom.

Granted, arson is among the most difficult crimes to solve — there are typically few witnesses, and charred evidence doesn't help — but since the early 1990s, the city has choked when it comes to nabbing fire fiends. While the clearance rate rose last year to more than 6 percent — rates waver from year to year, making multiyear averages the best measure of progress — it was only a small bump in the city's overall decline.

Clearances for every type of crime have fallen in Oakland over the years, yet those for arson have declined more precipitously. The trend started in 1991, when Oakland fell below the state average for the first time in nearly a decade. Now it prosecutes arsons less frequently than any other major California city.

It's no coincidence, one former investigator says, that 1991 was the same year former Fire Chief P. Lamont Ewell began to restructure the arson unit. Until the new chief arrived, just days before the devastating Oakland Hills fire, the department had no arson investigators. Instead, it had a team of fire inspectors who scoured sites for burn patterns and evidence (lighters, gas cans, etc.). They then wrote up reports that were passed to investigators in the police department. The police, in turn, interviewed witnesses and suspects and filed reports to the district attorney if they thought they had a case.

Ewell wanted each investigation to go cradle-to-grave with the fire squad. "Having worked in at least two other fire departments, I saw that [arson investigation] was not as high a priority in the police department as it was in the fire department," said Ewell, who is now Santa Monica's city manager. "That's not a value judgment, it's just a reality." So, under his guidance, the OFD gradually assumed many of the responsibilities the police previously held.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Ewell recalled little resistance from within either department. A few nips and tucks certainly made for a more streamlined investigation team, but the city's clearance rates plummeted. Within a year of the shift, Oakland was solving half the arsons it had before — the 1992 clearance rate was 6.5 percent, down from 12 percent in 1991.

The restructuring, meanwhile, gave the OPD leeway to reduce its investigative capabilities. The police arson unit, which used to have two full-time officers, now consists of a single cop, Barry Donelan, who is saddled with other property crimes as well — as if last year's 307 arsons weren't enough work for one person.

Donelan declined to comment for this article, and his supervisors didn't return phone calls, but investigators at the fire department say Donelan is swamped with cases he simply doesn't have time to address. "They are all just very, very busy over there," said Holmes, one of the first crop of fire department inspectors who was shifted to investigative duties amid Ewell's restructuring.

The shift was completed in 1996, one year before Ewell — who became Oakland's city manager in 1994 — left for a job as the city manager of Durham, North Carolina. In that year, three fire inspectors graduated from cross-training at the Police Academy and rejoined their department as fully trained investigators, theoretically equipped to follow cases from the crime scene to the DA's office.

Their presence seemed at least to stall any further decline in clearance rates until 2000, when two of them quit, leaving Holmes as the fire department's only academy-trained investigator. After that, clearances fell to the rock-bottom levels that have characterized the past four years.

Although other investigators were soon hired, the turnover handicapped the OFD because of the time it takes for new investigators to sharpen their skills. After fourteen years as an Oakland firefighter and engine driver, Maria Sabatini was promoted to fire investigator in 2005. Her additional training included 160 hours of hands-on classes, but she says much has been learned on the job. "It's hard when you are a firefighter and you are put into this law enforcement position; it's a big change and a big learning curve," she says.

Together, it all adds up to a three-person investigative team that does reasonably well in the initial investigations, but lacks serious follow-up. The fire department, which still depends on the police to bring suspects to justice, files hundreds of arson reports that detail fires' suspected causes and origins, but only the smallest fraction make it through the OPD bottleneck.

For comparison, glance across the bay to San Francisco's arson task force. The unit boasts eleven full-time fire investigators between the fire and police departments for a city that had eighty fewer arsons than Oakland in 2005. The extra staff has paid off — San Francisco cleared more than 8 percent of its arsons that year versus Oakland's fewer than 2 percent.

A larger investigative team almost always translates to higher clearance rates, according to Bob Eggleston, secretary and former president of the California Conference of Arson Investigators. "It's entirely an issue of manpower," said Eggleston, who served forty years as a firefighter and fire investigator in Southern California. But come budget-cutting time, he added, fire and police departments are all too eager to trim their investigative units.

What hope, if any, that Oakland will improve its record? Even though the city solved more than three times as many arsons last year as it did the previous one, its 2006 clearance rate was still half the state average, and far below those of similarly sized California cities with comparable numbers of arsons. The OPD is training a much-needed fire-debris forensics expert, although that technician won't be fully trained for at least another year. There is no indication, though, that either department plans to hire additional investigators.

In fact, there's a general lack of awareness in both departments about just how poorly they are faring. According to police spokesman Michael Poirier, no property crimes officer has been around long enough to remember the department's earlier successes, or the specific changes that took place during Ewell's restructuring.

But now Holmes has a copy of Oakland arson clearance data over time, which she plans to show her supervisors and fellow investigators. Studying the steep downslope, she tried to reconcile her memories of past years with the points on the chart. At loss for an explanation, she remarked slowly and with a hint of suspicion, "I sure would be interested in finding out."

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