Budget cuts in the wake of the Great Recession are leaving cities with understaffed and overwhelmed police departments.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it had awarded $4.5 million to the city of Oakland, Calif. so the cash-strapped city would be able to hire 10 police officers and work to battle the rising violent crime in the city, particularly in the city’s eastern neighborhoods.
Oakland’s police department is one of the most understaffed law enforcement agency’s in the U.S., according to government data released this week. While Oakland had one officer for every 638 residents, other cities such as Detroit have one officer for every 275 residents and Baltimore has one officer for every 211 residents.
Associate Attorney General Tony West, who is reported to be an Oakland resident, said the money was awarded to the city so the police department could address “major issues like homicide, gang crimes, gun crimes, youth violence and crimes against children.”
Original article: “Forget The Police: Oakland Residents Turn To Private Security Firms”
Crime continues to rise in the city of Oakland, Calif. at such a steadfast pace that residents have now begun hiring private security to keep their neighborhoods safe.
According to police records, robberies have increased by 54 percent from 2011, burglaries have increased by 40 percent, and car thefts are up by 33 percent. As the crime-wave makes its way into Oakland neighborhoods that were once rarely subjected, if not immune, to crime, some communities are taking a stand by hiring their own security officers.
Part of the reason neighborhoods have turned to hiring their own private security is because the Oakland Police Department is overwhelmed and understaffed.
Oakland is currently ranked as the fourth most dangerous city in the country, but has about half of the police force of other cities similar in size, due to a combination of failing to fill vacancies after officers retire or leave the department, and budget cuts.
While Oakland was not the only city affected by the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession, it is arguably one of the hardest hit by the actions of the big banks. During the past five years, the city has faced record budget deficits, prompting the city to make cuts that one grassroots community says “crippled the city’s ability to keep our neighborhoods clean and safe, limited access to libraries and recreation centers, and deprived our youth of meaningful programs to keep them off the streets.”
In 2010, the Oakland City Council announced it had to make “drastic” cuts in order to balance the budget, saying that because the Oakland Police and Fire Departments account for 72 percent of the money spent from the general fund, they would have to lay off hundreds of police officers. Since the city’s economy has not improved in recent years, these cuts are still in effect and have only become more severe.
On its website, the Oakland Residents for Peaceful Neighborhoods (ORPN) group shared that part of the reason crime has become such an epidemic in the Bay Area city is a direct result of the police department being understaffed.
The group points out that in January 2003, the department had about 740 officers on its force. As of August 2013, the department only had about 618 officers. According to the group, Oakland needs at least 1,100 police officers in order for law enforcement to properly function in a community with about 400,000 people.
Mary Graham is a retired Oakland high school teacher who lives in Sequoyah Hills, a secluded, forested neighborhood near the Oakland Zoo. She said, “One night I was at home and the alarm came on and the dogs started barking like mad, and I called the police and I stayed on the phone with the operator — and it took them 20 minutes to come.”
While the sound of the alarms and dogs was enough to discourage the intruder from pursuing the invasion, Graham said she was shaken by the incident and said she thought that her community should invest in private security.
“They have this type of security in buildings,” she said. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t have it in our neighborhood.”
Forty-five of Graham’s neighbors in the Sequoyah Hills neighborhood agreed and now spend $20 a month to have private security officers patrol the streets of their neighborhood.
Elizabeth Caprini is the general manager of VMA Security Group, the security company patrolling Graham’s neighborhood. She said that she expects VMA Security will be guarding 500 homes across the city of Oakland by this November.
“Homes are getting broken into, drug dealing and prostitution are taking place,” Caprini said. “All that people want is to be able to use our services to be their eyes and ears for them.”
While it took the police about 20 minutes before arriving at Graham’s home the night someone attempted to break in, ORPN reports that the police department is so understaffed that they are “unable to respond to entire categories of theft and other crimes, unable to investigate more than a handful of reported crimes, and completely unable to respond to neighborhood crimes when officers are required to work on a riot situation.”
The group blames the lack of law enforcement on why “a culture of disruption and disrespect dominates our neighborhoods.”
Private security vs. police force
According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, the first community to hire private security is located one block away from Oakland Mayor Jean Quan’s home. Three blocks of residents in the Oakmore neighborhood hired Intervention Group Security to patrol the neighborhood after a burglar tried to break into a home with two children.
Nate Cook is the owner of Intervention Group Security. He said his officers are currently patrolling 300 homes and said that number will rise to 500 in October when his company begins providing security patrol services for the Parkridge neighborhood, which is located near a local high school.
While no other cities have hired private security firms to patrol entire neighborhoods, Cook said the city of Oakland has generated a lot of demand for security services.
“I’m talking to people all the time [in Oakland] to see what we can do,” he said. “They call me all the time.”
Demand for private security could spread to other states soon, however, as budget cuts and layoffs at police departments are underway throughout the nation. In Oregon, for example, the state police department is now only open Monday through Friday, prompting the Josephine County Sheriff’s Department to put out a press release warning domestic violence victims to “consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.”
In 2012, the Falmouth Police Department in Massachusetts reported that the law enforcement agency would only be able to provide the most basic crime-fighting and emergency services since it had to decrease its budget by more than $180,000.
Though hiring private security is not a cheap endeavor, it’s a safety measure that is not only being used in affluent neighborhoods anymore.
Jose Durado is a resident of the middle-class Maxwell Park neighborhood and chairman of the neighborhood council. He said about 180 residents in the neighborhood have come together to hire a security guard to patrol the neighborhood for four hours a day, five days a week.
“It costs each of us about 50 cents a day,” he said. “As we get 45 new households to join, we get an additional hour of security.
“We’re hoping that we can act as an example,” Durado said. “We expect that there will be other neighborhoods around us that will say, ‘How did you guys do that?’”
One city Councilwoman Libby Schaaf told the San Francisco Chronicle that all residents in Oakland are entitled to peace of mind, and shouldn’t have to hire security guards to achieve it.
“Oaklanders deserve more safety, and to the extent that citizens can generate it for themselves and their neighborhood, I applaud that effort,” Schaaf said. “But it does not excuse the city for failing to provide the most basic element of government. It is not a substitute.”
While the security officers are not a replacement for the Oakland Police Department, they are hired to “scare thugs out of the neighborhood or to report suspicious activity.”
Cook said that some of his officers are armed and “wouldn’t hesitate to detain someone until police arrived,” but said that because they are private guards, the security officers can’t do any more than make a citizen’s arrest.
“Sometimes OPD is able to do something,” Cook said. “Sometimes it is the luck of the draw.”
In response to the increased use of private security firms, Oakland Police spokeswoman, Officer Johnna Watson said the department appreciates the help to keep the city safe. “We are all striving for the same goal, and that is reducing crime,” she said. “The security companies are an extra set of eyes that allow the community to be empowered.”
Sean Maher, a spokesman for Mayor Quan’s office agreed, and said putting more police on the streets is the city’s top priority. “When communities get organized and rally around a cause like public safety, it is incredibly effective,” Maher said. “It is unfortunate that people feel forced to do this. We want a fully staffed Police Department.”
Due to constricted budgets in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, Chuck Wexler, head of the Washington, D.C.-based police think tank the Police Executive Research Forum, said that private security patrols are “a sign of the times.”
“Cities are cash-strapped, and they are finding it difficult to keep up with the costs of a municipal police force,” Wexler said. “And if you want more police, you really have to ask yourself this question: What are cities prepared to do?”
Wexler cautioned that while the private security officers may help reduce some crime, he said they are not a substitute for a “competent police force.”
“When you are talking about municipal police, you are talking about public officials and holding them to a high standard,” he said. “If private security is involved, they should be held to an equally high standard.
“When there is an emergency kind of situation, there is nothing better than a good police officer, and there is nothing worse than a bad police officer,” Wexler said. “The same is true for private security.”