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For example, Measure Y, a parcel tax, currently funds 63 Oakland police officers, fire prevention services, and violence prevention programs. It sunsets at the end of 2014 unless the city council puts forward a renewal or replacement measure and voters approve it this November. But, with the growth of private patrols in the city, will residents who pay nearly $500 a year for their own security guards vote to continue paying the Measure Y parcel tax, too?
Many folks contend that the solution to Oakland's crime problems is to hire more police officers. And whether or not you agree with this argument, most folks would acknowledge that the loss of 63 officers and vast funding for violence prevention programs would have an enormous impact on public safety overall in the city.
In addition, even if crime does go down in a neighborhood with private patrols, crime itself might not go away. During my years working on public safety issues at Oakland City Hall, I explained this to residents as the "water balloon effect." You squeeze the balloon on one end, and the water just rushes to the other end, and so crime doesn't go really decline through enforcement alone. The private security companies readily admit this fact. When asked by the San Francisco Chronicle, Richard McDiarmid of Security Code 3 said, "We're a deterrent. Hopefully the people that are committing crimes, they see that there's security in the area and they go to a different area, quite frankly."
If enforcement were really the solution, we would have the safest streets on Earth. After all, we have the largest prison population of any nation. But our streets aren't the safest, because we can't arrest our way out of our problems.
In the end, private patrols are nothing more than a stopgap measure for those with means, and they jeopardize long-term peace and safety of the city, while doing nothing to address or resolve the deep systemic issues that are the root of crime in Oakland. We need jobs, housing, and opportunities for our young people. For those who have been caught up in crime and the underground economy, we need to look at restorative justice as a way to rebuild lives and bring these members back into our community. We need to end the War on Drugs. We need serious gun control to take these instruments of murder and mayhem off our streets.
Rather than spend time debating the wrongheadedness of these private patrols, we should focus our time, energy — and yes, our money — toward building a more safe and equitable Oakland for all. Imagine if we spent our money on violence prevention instead. Or if, rather than spending ours debating this fractious issue, we spent that time mentoring and volunteering?
As we move towards those goals, in the short-term there are commonsense things we can do to keep our families safe from crime. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Build community! Walk outside, talk with your neighbors, go to the park, say "hi" to folks on the street.
2. Secure your property. While burglar alarms aren't foolproof, they've stopped break-ins in my neighborhood. The two home invasions took place in houses without alarms. Get (several) vehicle theft devices: car alarm, club, etc. Minimize the visibility of valuables in your home and car. There might be nothing in that bag on your front seat, but if someone is looking to steal valuables they may not know that until they've already broken your car window. Get motion lights for your home that turn off during the day. Secure your doors and windows. Clear brush and trees from around your house, so if you are not home, your neighbors can easily see suspicious behavior. Adopt a dog from Oakland Animal Services! Dogs make excellent sentries and provide loving companionship.
3. Become engaged. Attend neighborhood meetings. Investigate when you hear an alarm going off. If a tragedy occurs nearby, lend physical and emotional support to the victim(s). Mark and mourn the loss of all life, of victims, and of folks who are caught up in illegal activity to the point where death is the only way out. All life is precious.
I live in Oakland because I want to live among folks who look out for each other, and not just watch with paranoia. The debate around private security patrols has exposed a clear rift in our town, one that ends up pitting the hills against the flatlands, and even among neighbors above I-580 who disagree about this issue — armed versus unarmed guards versus none at all.
But we need to build unity on a macro level throughout the city as well as block by block. That's especially true for our young people: We should be uplifting their lives through arts programs, sports, after-school workshops, open libraries, recreation centers, youth centers — and not destroying them through increased surveillance, suspicion, unnecessary calls for service, and unwarranted profilings and arrests.
The road is long and the challenges are many, but Oaklanders have come through in the past, and we need to come through now in order to build a more just, healthy, and peaceful city for us all.
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