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The Thin Blue Privatized Line
Justin Berton | Photo: Jesse Lenz | June 3, 2014
Unsettled by the reality that the cops can't help them, Oakland residents are hiring private patrols. Crime is down. But is the cure worse than the disease?
Editor's Note: This is one of many dispatches from Oakland that San Francisco magazine is publishing over the next month, all part of our June "Oakland Issue." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.
When Larry Ward and his buddy realized that they’d been spotted by a security guard during their alleged midday heist of an Oakland home, they did what burglars caught in the act might be expected to do: They dropped the loot and ran.
According to police reports and witness accounts, Ward and his accomplice abandoned the spoils—two flat-screen TVs, three guns, and a telescope—in the yard and sprinted for their getaway car, a Mercedes-Benz SUV. As Ward’s wheelman scrambled into the driver’s seat and punched the gas pedal, Ward lost his footing on the passenger side and tumbled onto the pavement. From the ground, the 18-year-old watched as his friend fishtailed away in the SUV, disappearing up a narrow residential street into the Oakland hills.
Picking himself up, Ward was approached by Rico Thomas, the 26-year-old security guard who had stumbled upon the break-in—and would soon draw a gun and shoot the suspect with it. Thomas had become a beloved fixture to the Upper Dimond and Oakmore residents who had hired him to patrol their streets months earlier. He would later tell police that his scrap with Ward happened in a flash: Ward lunged at him with an iron pry bar, he said, and tried to kill him. The two men wrestled, and then Ward ran away. But instead of heading downhill, the easier escape route, Ward ran uphill after the SUV, perhaps hoping that it would stop.
Ward started his trek up Harding Way with one hand gripping the front of his sagging black jeans and the other shielding his face, says neighbor Jennie Votel, who watched the fight and the flight unfold. When she shouted at Ward and extended her arms to confront him (her garage had been burgled weeks earlier, and she was riled with an Oaklander’s sense of “Oh, hell no!”), he brushed her aside and continued his crab-waddle up the hill.
“I wasn’t going to try and hold him down,” Votel tells me, “but I didn’t want him to get away, either. People have asked me if I was afraid he had a gun, but you could tell he didn’t have a gun. He was covering his face and looked ashamed. He said”—Votel whines in a childish voice—“‘I didn’t do anything, lady.’”
Thomas, meanwhile, ran downhill to his parked Corolla, called the Oakland police on his cell, and steered in pursuit of Ward, who had completed a 350-yard uphill run and arrived at a fork at Tiffin Road. Ward chose to go left, a fateful mistake if he wanted to catch a breather. At first Tiffin Road appears flat, but after a gentle curve, the street inclines like a roller coaster. After a staircase-steep block and another 350 yards, Ward was rewarded with a downhill outlet. He skittered down Waterhouse Road, but that’s where Thomas caught up with him. The security guard jumped out of the Corolla.
Witnesses have given police varying accounts of what happened next, all of which, according to Ward’s court-appointed attorney, will be aired at the pretrial hearing in May (after this issue has gone to press). Initial police reports allege that Ward pulled out a pry bar and made a threat on Thomas’s life. One neighbor tells me that Thomas, who said that he feared Ward was ready to bolt through a backyard and vanish, felt that he had to stop him.
At some point—possibly during their first tussle—Thomas sprayed the teenager with Mace or pepper spray. The irritant failed to subdue Ward, and Thomas later told neighbors that the wind blew the chemicals back into his own face. Whatever the chain of events, the encounter on Waterhouse Road ended with Thomas drawing a gun and shooting Ward in his upper left thigh.
Caria Tomczykowska pulled up to her home after an errand to the post office to find Ward lying at the foot of her driveway. From a distance she thought that Thomas was her gardener, sprinkling her lawn. Then she noticed the blood trickling toward the gutter.
Thomas, fatigued and flushed with adrenaline, was standing over Ward with a garden hose. Worried that his detainee would pass out before the police arrived, he squirted water into Ward’s face every few seconds to keep him conscious. Neighbors emerged from their homes and formed a semicircle around the two men. From across the street, Tomczykowska took cell phone photos of Ward, who wore the look of cornered prey, frozen in shock and dripping wet.
“Rico deserves a gift basket and a card,” Tomczykowska tells me a few weeks after the shooting. “Next time I see him, I’m going to give him a little gratuity so he can take himself out to dinner.”
Tomczykowska has lived in her home on Waterhouse Road for 42 years and was once the neighborhood association leader. Last fall, she gladly agreed to the $36 monthly fee to hire a company called Security Code 3 for a private patrol. When television trucks parked at her curb 15 minutes after the shooting, she told reporters that she was OK with the fact that Thomas had gunned down Ward and happy that the accused had been arrested. Her boyfriend, Robin Perry, went further. The Vietnam vet ignited the neighborhood online boards after he told a reporter that Ward was lucky he hadn’t been home. Perry said that he would have shot Ward dead.
If the decision to hire a private guard was meant to unify the neighborhood, the shooting had the opposite effect: It fractured it. Most neighbors supported Thomas’s actions. But a vocal minority that emerged in the days afterward thought that Thomas had gone too far.
“I still can’t understand why other people on the street feel bad about what happened,” Tomczykowska tells me. “This is what we paid for—to catch the bad guys and to send a message that they’re not welcome here. It was a fluke thing that just so happened on our street, and now it’s put a chill over the neighborhood.”
Oakland residents love to unpack a good sociological conundrum—more so when it weaves in crime, class, and race. But perhaps nothing has tangled their concerns like the rise of private security patrols. And it would be hard to find a knottier tangle than this: an African-American teenager from the flatlands running through a maze of $800,000 homes, only to be shot by a guard (also black) who was not supposed to be armed and whose vision was temporarily impaired by his own pepper spray.
On message boards and in conversations, Oakland residents debated a host of questions. Did Larry Ward deserve a bullet in the quad for allegedly stealing a couple of flat screens and long guns and trying to escape? Did Thomas’s bullet deliver a message to those who might follow in the suspect’s footsteps? Or might it provoke future burglars to carry guns, make them more trigger-happy, and make the neighborhood less safe? And who, if anyone, had blood on their hands? Thomas? The residents who hired him? Or the accused criminal himself?
Living in Oakland means accepting that the cops are too overburdened to protect and too undermanned to serve. With just 652 officers, the Oakland Police Department is understaffed by a staggering 200 to 250 officers. The city’s last three police chiefs, Sean Whent, Howard Jordan, and Anthony Batts, have all publicly conceded that their rank and file can do little but respond to high-priority 911 calls (such as murders, robberies, assaults, and rapes in progress). And it takes the OPD an average of 17 minutes to respond to those emergencies, more than double the average time in comparable California cities. But Oakland residents are hardwired with a DIY ethos, and the most engaged citizens have mobilized beyond the talk-centric Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils that rose from the crack-and-gang wars of the 1990s to handle neighborhood security. In this liberal city, with its deep skepticism of the police and Big Brother, a growing number of residents are paradoxically hiring proxy badges and planting license plate–reading cameras in their rosebushes.
“The thing that makes Oakland different,” UC Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring says, “is that this isn’t the extraordinarily wealthy or corporations purchasing security to protect their assets, as it is in other parts of the world or here in the U.S. This is regular citizens banding together to get basic security. It’s not frosting on the security cake; it’s baking a private layer of security into the cake—a layer that the state cannot provide because of diminished resources.”
No one can fault residents for looking beyond the police for security. Oakland has the highest violent crime rate in California. At 10.9 robberies per 1,000 residents, you’re more likely to get robbed here than in any other big city in America. And many of the robberies are in-your-face brazen. In September, three hooded men robbed a 20-person queue of casual carpoolers at gunpoint in Rockridge on a major street just before 9 a.m. In October, four armed men robbed a group of volunteer workers at a Habitat for Humanity construction site in East Oakland. One of the workers was pistol-whipped.
But despite these notorious examples, the Oakland police have admitted that they can do little to help. At a standing-room-only meeting at the Dimond Library six days after Ward’s shooting, interim assistant chief Paul Figueroa told neighbors that this year, the department was most focused on reducing shootings in the flatlands and would concentrate its resources there.
“It’s our theory,” Figueroa said to an audience that appeared to appreciate the logic, “that if we can reduce shootings overall, we’ll reduce homicides. The people who are shooting and committing violent crimes [in the flatlands] are the same ones willing to commit serious crime in your neighborhoods.”
But Oaklanders in various income brackets are not willing to wait for this trickle-down theory to work. What was once a luxury item for the million-dollar-view neighborhoods above Highway 13 has begun to spread across Oakland. In the past three years, residents have started to stitch together a series of private patrols—75, 100, 150 homes at a time. Abandoning traditional neighborhood association boundaries, they’ve bonded with anyone who’s willing to chip in to the kitty: a few streets this way, a few blocks that way. In April, neighbors in the hip Temescal district launched an online campaign to raise money to hire a patrol for an ambitiously large 1,000-home jurisdiction.
No one keeps official data on the number of guards and the precise borders of their territories. Nor is it known which neighborhoods deputize armed guards, although most guards are thought to be unarmed. But press reports and interviews with company owners indicate that private forces, working for at least six different companies, watch 2,500 to 3,500 homes, or about 2 percent of the city’s total of 161,000 homes.
The shift from affluent neighborhoods into moderate-income ones was illustrated in September when neighbors in Maxwell Park, a middle-class East Oakland neighborhood, hired a company to keep an eye on 300 homes. José Dorado, a tax preparer who helped organize the effort, tells me that residents there negotiated with competing companies for several months, until they won a contract that costs homeowners $15 a month—a bargain compared to the $50 to $75 that residents living near Skyline Boulevard have to shell out.
Bordered by Interstate 580 to the north and flanked by major thoroughfares on the west and east that lead to freeway entrances, Dorado’s neighborhood is a frequent site of break-ins, car thefts, and stolen-car dumps, partly due to the easy escape routes.
“Fifty cents a day,” Dorado says. “Isn’t feeling safer worth that much?”
The absence of police presence is so noteworthy that it can play like dark comedy. Last summer, Chronicle pop culture critic Peter Hartlaub (who once live-tweeted the discovery of his ransacked home) was among a group of neighbors who caught the aftermath when a getaway van full of burglars crashed into two parked cars. As neighbors dialed 911 and spat out suspect descriptions to dispatchers, the robbers jumped from their white van, worked together to dislodge it from the wreckage, and rolled it a block away on a flat tire before giving up on their lame vehicle and fleeing on foot. Neighbors, who took photos of the license plate and VIN number, waited at the crash scene with one strong lead: One of the suspects had dropped his halfway house report with his name printed on the top.
The cops never showed. Three hours later, however, the burglars returned. To the clicks of cell phone photos taken from a safe distance, the thieves jacked up the car, put on a spare tire, and drove away. At the four-hour mark, Hartlaub says, a police officer finally showed up. “It’s actually made our neighborhood a hell of a lot stronger,” Hartlaub says in a silver-lining kind of way. “And we look out for each other. I’m guessing it was that way in the Wild West, too.”
It’s the tragedies, however, that speak loudest to the reality of living in a police void. Last summer, Judy Salamon, a 66-year-old dog-sitter nicknamed the Pet Nanny, was murdered in broad daylight in Maxwell Park. Well known to her neighbors, Salamon was an advocate of patrols and had passed out flyers advertising a meeting on the plan to hire one days before her death. Up until then, liberal residents had been worried about hiring guards, wondering if they were adding to America’s culture of violence and opening the door to ugly George Zimmerman scenarios. “Whatever concerns they had about what more security would bring or ‘Will there be racial profiling?’ ended after Judy’s death,” Dorado says. “After that, there really wasn’t much discussion about whether this was a bad thing.”