What's Driving Oakland's Robbery Epidemic? 

Answer: Smartphones. And law enforcement experts say cellphone companies could make our streets a lot safer if they would install kill switches that make their phones inoperable when stolen.

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Oakland police Lieutenant Bolton regularly responds to reports of smartphone robberies. He said OPD is trying its best to identify "hotspots" and send more patrols into the areas with high rates of theft to try to prevent crime before it occurs, instead of just responding "call to call to call."

Although victims know about the robbery surge in Oakland, he said, many people never expect to get robbed and don't take the necessary precautions. "Although they're aware of crime beforehand," he said. "They don't believe it will happen to them."

Yet despite his daily work in crime prevention and his experience on the streets of Oakland, nearly a month after the launch of iOS 7, Bolton said that he had never heard of Activation Lock — a program that would help him advise a victim on how to recover his or her phone, or at least assure the person that the phone could be made inoperable, at least for now.

Councilman Kalb hadn't heard of the kill switch either, even though reducing smartphone theft is an important and personal issue for him. In fact, he had just responded to a highly publicized robbery in his district a couple weeks before we spoke.

On September 23, six days after the launch of iOS 7, three hooded gunmen held up about twenty morning commuters standing in a Rockridge district casual carpool line, and robbed them of their wallets and electronic devices. The robberies occurred before 9 a.m., in broad daylight, and with multiple witnesses.

"I was surprised [by the hold-up] because I had never heard about that kind of thing before," Kalb said. "Generally the muggers don't want to be seen. They're walking around neighborhoods and looking for a person, usually someone by themselves. To have three guys during rush hour with so many people around, it shows how brazen robbers are becoming."

And if Kalb and Bolton hadn't heard of Activation Lock, how many of those commuters had?

"When you look at it from the bigger pic[ture]," said Lieutenant Santos, "prior to iOS 7, and even after it was released, Apple doesn't say, 'Hey, look at our security features!" Your iPhone usually contains your whole life: phone contacts, pictures, where you live .... I mean a lot. And they don't tell you how to protect yourself because they are in competition with other companies."

In other words, smartphone companies don't seem to be in a hurry to associate their products with crime — even if it might help their customers avoid becoming victims. "I'm a big supporter and friend of Apple," he added. "But I don't think they do enough to protect their consumers."

Despite the robbery epidemic, there's been no public outcry over the failure by smartphone companies to install effective kill switches — or to adequately market the upgrades they recently introduced. Instead, local law enforcement and public officials are still coming under fire for not doing more to deal with the robbery outbreak.

But Gascón said he's hopeful that an increasing number of law enforcement officials around the nation now realize that kill switches present the best hope for reducing robberies, and that they will help raise public awareness about the need for them. "I really wanted to bring national attention to this," Gascón said. "Lots of DAs and police chiefs are signing up and supporting the idea of a kill switch."

As for Kalb, he thinks it's time for lawmakers to step in and help solve the problem. "I'm all for requiring a kill switch. I'm not interested in waiting around for [smartphone companies] to do it all on their own," he said. "I'm all for introducing a bill in the [California] legislature requiring all phones in the state to have this feature." 

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