Oakland robberies surge as investigations sputter
- September 30, 2013
By Will Kane
Chronicle Staff Writer
MetroPCS store on Oakland's MacArthur Boulevard. 7:45 p.m. Thursday. Store owner Abdullah Qasem is behind the counter when two men in hoodies burst in through the back door.
The men cover their faces with their hands, and one suggests he has a gun.
This is Qasem's first time being robbed, but he knows the drill.
"I put my hands up, and they told me, 'Come down, come down,' I was on the floor doing this," Qasem says, showing how he became spread-eagled on the floor. "One held my head and said, 'Don't look, don't look.' "
The men jerk open the cash register and, in less than a minute, slip into the shadows behind the store.
Police arrive a few minutes later, but the robbers have picked their target well.
"The freeway on-ramp is right around the corner. They're probably halfway to San Francisco right now," Sgt. Jim Rullamas says as police officers look for clues.
Another night in the robbery capital of America.
No city had more robberies per capita than Oakland in 2012. According to new federal statistics, Oakland had 10.9 robberies per 1,000 residents. And 2013 is shaping up to be even worse.
The trend defies easy explanation. So far this year, crime, as a whole in Oakland is stagnant. Shootings are down. Homicide has dropped by 13 percent.
But robberies are up. A lot.
There have been more than 3,800 robberies in the city in 2013, a 24 percent jump compared with this time last year. If the rate continues, robberies will have jumped 82 percent from 2010 to 2013.
Reasons behind surge
The reasons robbery is so high vary, said police, city leaders and crime experts.
-- More people in Oakland carry smartphones, which can be wiped and sold on the black market for $100 to $200.
-- Gangs and criminal groups in Oakland have mostly stopped slinging drugs on the corner and make money through robberies and break-ins.
-- Many Oakland neighborhoods are gentrifying, bringing young professionals into areas of the city that are still in the midst of transformation.
-- There are not enough police officers patrolling Oakland's streets or investigating robberies.
Eight detectives are assigned to investigate robberies, and the city on average has 14 robbery reports a day. One robbery investigator is assigned to each of the city's five police districts, and three more monitor the entire city.
A May report by police consultant Bill Bratton found that Oakland police were "slow to respond to robberies and interview victims, losing momentum on the investigation of pattern robberies."
Few robberies get the attention they deserve, police acknowledge.
"From an enforcement perspective you have to see the staffing challenges that we have in the Police Department - not only having a sufficient number of officers in the field, you also have a shortage in the capacity to do follow up investigations," said Capt. Anthony Toribio, who has overseen North Oakland since the police created district commands in June.
That staffing challenges quickly become apparent to crime victims when they contact the police.
Peter Prato, a 34-year-old photographer, was walking with friends in July on the south side of Lake Merritt when his group was suddenly surrounded by six men. One of the robbers pointed a gun, and the others collected backpacks, laptops and a bike.
'A force overwhelmed'
No one was harmed, but Prato was shaken.
"It was so disappointing," said Prato, who has been robbed three times since moving to Oakland from San Francisco in 2005. "We had just gotten done with a conversation about robberies, and the other state of things."
When Prato later gave police his report, he could hear the chatter on their radios.
"They seemed completely like a force overwhelmed with the evening," Prato recalled. "We could hear other robberies reported over the radio as we were giving our statements."
At the same time that police face staffing challenges, many of the city's neighborhoods are gentrifying, attracting new iPad-toting residents into areas that were devastated during the recession.
"With gentrification you suddenly have people coming into neighborhoods that essentially bottomed out in the economy," said Benjamin Bowser, a professor of sociology and social services at Cal State East Bay who has studied Oakland since 1986.
Crimes of opportunity
Urban revitalization often happens in patches and pockets, leaving half the block leaping forward and other half struggling, Bowser said. Those changes can lead to more crimes of opportunity such as street robberies.
Steve Gomez, a 57-year-old tennis pro and lifelong resident of Oakland, was riding his scooter down 40th Avenue on a recent Tuesday when he saw what he described as a common sight in his neighborhood.
"There was this young twentysomething white woman who had just finished her call and her brand-new sparkly iPhone was being held in her hand," Gomez said. "I saw these guys in the car driving by, and I saw his head snap left when he saw that."
Gomez pulled up to the woman and told her to put her phone away. Sure enough, Gomez said, the men circled back and stared.
"I told her, 'Just keep your phone inside and get to where you are going quickly,' " Gomez said. He tipped police, who later stopped the car. The men bailed out, and police found a black ski mask and gloves inside the car.
"It is like lambs to the lion, you know?" Gomez said. "I know (criminals) are cruising for easy opportunities, and there are a lot of easy opportunities."
In early 2013, police Lt. Chris Bolton analyzed robberies across the city and found that roughly 75 percent involved a smartphone.
Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who represents West Oakland, said joblessness is a big factor in the city's robbery rate.
"We have a lot fewer jobs for adults so kids experience a lot more lack, so they are not able to get things," she said, noting that some turn to robbery to get money. "Really what they are after is really basic things - shoes, jackets. The things these kids are buying with money from stolen things are not flashy things.
"They are buying just staple goods," Gibson McElhaney said. "People are stealing credit cards, and they are buying groceries. They are buying at Babies R Us."
The high robbery rate, Bowser said, could also be a reflection of shrinking turf among criminal gangs.
"With gentrification also comes the decline of turf," Bowser said. "In order to sell drugs or sell prostitution or so forth, you have to have a certain amount of territory to work with, so what happens with gentrification is that your turf is getting smaller and smaller and smaller, so with smaller turf comes less money and more competition."
More lucrative than drugs
That may be one reason many criminal gangs have turned to robbery and burglary to make money.
Criminals have apparently realized that they can make more money robbing people than they could selling drugs, Toribio said. It is riskier to rob someone than it is sell drugs, but the risk lasts for just a few minutes.
"It is a lot easier to make the money doing robberies than it is being out there on the corners for X-amount of time being exposed to arrest by the police or gun violence by rival drug dealers and/or gang members," Toribio said. "I'm not hearing or seeing the level of calls for drug dealing. That's not to say it is not there, but that anecdotally the volume is not there."
Citywide this year, arrests for drug dealing or drug possession are less than half of what they were in 2010, when robberies began to climb.
Mayor Jean Quan said in a statement that "public safety is my top priority, and rebuilding our police force is a central part of that work."
Quan noted that the city's third police academy this year begins Monday. The second academy graduated this month. As of July 31, Oakland had 626 officers - still far less than the 800-plus officers the city had in 2010.
But until there are more police officers on the street, police need to be smart and precise about how they provide public safety, Toribio said.
"We look at robbery patterns and trends," Toribio said. "If I notice that there is a shift where robberies are occurring by shift, time of day or place, I can direct resources that way."
One of the tactics used in North Oakland is to allow some officers to patrol hotspots without responding to low-priority 911 calls.
"We take the officers off the radio clock," said Bolton, Toribio's operations commander. "We cannot prevent crime if we are just responding to the reports of crime,"
The patrols appear to work.
Earlier this year, North Oakland was averaging 3.6 robberies per day, one of the highest rates of robbery in the city, Bolton said.
But that number has dropped to just 1.5 incidents per day, Bolton said.
"There are things that are coming to help us," Toribio said. "We're hiring more officers. We're also hiring more civilian staff that can take work off patrol officers. It will allow officers to engage in more proactive enforcement in specific areas and give us the resources to do that diligent follow-up investigation and the resources to be proactive rather than reactive."