At the beginning of Memorial Day Weekend, as barbecue smoke wafted through the air in East Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood, a group of thieves snuck onto the campus of the Fremont Federation of High Schools. They had acquired a set of keys and opened the door to the office of Media Academy, one of the four small schools on the campus. Ignoring the roaring alarm set off by motion detectors, they diligently dragged the school's 300-plus-pound safe out the door, down the steps, and across the schoolyard to the auditorium. Once there, they had at it for three days straight.
It must have been hard work, because at some point, they also broke into the neighboring cafeteria and stole large quantities of snacks to fuel their efforts — even making nachos. The bathrooms were locked, so one of them defecated in the corner of the room. It wasn't until late Monday night, hours before students would return to class, that they busted the safe door open and collected their prize: laptops, school credit cards, confiscated student cell phones, and several hundred dollars in funds to pay for the upcoming prom.
The alarms had blared all weekend, resonating throughout the neighborhood and prompting neighbors to repeatedly call the police. Yet according to Media Academy Principal Benjamin Schmookler, Oakland police didn't show up until Monday night, after most of the thieves, and all of the loot, had disappeared. The two stragglers they were able to catch, one of whom was a former Fremont Federation student, later got off in a plea bargain.
"The police told us it was a low-priority call," Schmookler lamented.
Break-ins have been par for the course throughout the principal's five-year tenure at Fremont Federation. There have been too many to count, he said, with at least a handful each year. "It's a norm that they're going to break in and steal," Schmookler said. "I leave the door to my office open now. 'Please don't break the window.'"
The school has repeatedly lost LCD projectors, new computers, flat-screen monitors, and other high-tech equipment purchased for its vocational-media programs. Sometimes it is able to replace the stolen materials, but often it's not, and students have to make due without. Just since Memorial Day, Schmookler estimates that Fremont has endured at least $13,000 in losses and incurred another $25,000 in expenses re-keying its doors after each incident. By now, he's all but given up on the police to do much about it.
"It's obvious the police aren't coming out here."
Aside from a custodian who usually sticks around until about 9 p.m. on school days, there are six security guards and two Oakland Police officers stationed at Fremont Federation, but they're all gone by about 4:30 p.m. and none are around on weekends.
Media High got raided again the first weekend after Christmas break. This time, thieves bent the window grates on a bunch of portable classrooms, sawed open the metal security bar across the door, and made off with ten new iMac computers. They also hit two of the other small schools across campus.
Schmookler said he had a bad feeling about that weekend and called police beforehand to be on the lookout. He wanted them to have keys to the school so they could actually patrol on campus, rather than just doing the routine drive-by. He said the grounds department had given keys to police officers in the past, but that officers repeatedly lost them. So, before the weekend, he personally handed a set to some on-duty officers. Nevertheless, they didn't show up and the thieves made the rounds with impunity.
Public schools are big targets for thieves in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods where the majority of Oakland schools are situated. They are among the few places in the area with valuable equipment, giving burglars a lot more bang for the buck than robbing a house or store. While some perpetrators have been captured on camera, very few have been caught, and it's assumed that many of them are former or even current students who have thoroughly staked out the school, come prepared with the necessary equipment, and know exactly what they're looking for and where to find it.
OPD Sergeant Jack Peterson oversees the nine officers stationed at the city's six major high schools — none of which are strangers to break-ins. His officers leave campus at 4:30 and his unit often doesn't even hear about the nighttime break-in incidents, which are handled by whatever patrol is on duty at the time. OPD dispatchers, he explained, give calls to on-duty officers in order of priority, deciding what the officers hear. "We don't have discretion on what we take or how we take it," he said. Regarding priority, Peterson added, "it's life over property," and an alarm going off, even at a school, is considered low priority compared to the abundance of violent crimes on any given night. "It's only day or night," Peterson said, explaining that his unit doesn't have the numbers to patrol after school hours. "We can't work both shifts.
"It's a priority, it's just that unfortunately we don't have enough people to go to all calls at once," he said. "Violent crimes are handled first. Of course it's a priority, but if you've got a bunch of calls involving violence and one call involving a school, what are you going to do?"
It comes down to numbers, Peterson said. There are just not enough officers out there to patrol schools after hours. As has been well-publicized in recent months, the Oakland Police Department is currently short about seventy officers of its authorized 803 total. "I would love to see our department at full force," Peterson said. "Of course that takes time."
Yet, there has been some progress, he said, including the installation of cameras on school sites, which he thinks has been a moderate deterrent. Peterson met with Fremont's four principals the week before the Martin Luther King holiday and conducted a four-day surveillance operation, but didn't end up catching anyone. He said his unit continues to urge principals and staff to properly secure things of value, noting that in several instances, doors and gates have been left unlocked. Preventing the break-ins is the whole community's responsibility, he argued. "The responsibility is not on just one agency or person."
Peterson also thinks it would make a big difference if there were an on-campus nighttime security guard who could directly call police at the moment of the crime. "That changes the complexity of the whole thing," he said. "A potential burglary on campus makes it a higher priority; it's a crime in progress."
Two years ago the Oakland Unified School District reinstated its own school police department, which had been disbanded in 2002, a casualty of budget cuts. Since then, the ranks have been very lean, with a district-wide total of five officers, three of whom are currently injured, according to Arturo Michel, the department's deputy police chief. Charged with rebuilding the force, he said that five new officers should be arriving in the next few months and hopes to have a total of twelve within a year.
"There has been an inordinate amount of computers taken from different schools," Michel said, noting that the incidents at Fremont are far from unique. He refers to an incident this year at James Madison Middle School near the San Leandro border, in which eighteen computers were stolen by a group of young teenagers, three of whom were caught.
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