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The Thin Blue Privatized Line

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?

When a patrolling rent-a-cop shoots a fleeing suspect, some homeowners begin to

When a patrolling rent-a-cop shoots a fleeing suspect, some homeowners begin to question the morality of neighborhood self-defense.

 

Lynn Nartsch owns a house on Waterhouse Road, the street where Thomas caught and shot Ward. She read the neighborhood discussion boards that applauded Thomas’s actions for nine days before she decided to post an opposing opinion. “I am loath to respond here, but I can’t help myself,” she began. “I feel like my minority opinion needs to be on record.”

Bartsch, an attorney and writer, lives with her husband and two children directly across the street from Tomczykowska and Perry. From her front door, she can see the bleach streaks left by firefighters who used the chemical to remove Ward’s blood from Tomczykowska’s driveway. When neighbors passed the cup to hire Security Code 3, Bartsch says, her family was initially attracted to the idea—their home had been burglarized two summers before while a friend slept upstairs.

But the attorney had misgivings about liability issues and believed that neighbors would be legally vulnerable if a crook shot a guard on their property (she hadn’t considered the possibility of the guard shooting the crook). She was also skeptical of the company’s promise to merely “observe and report,” aware that when you invite a badge of any shape into your backyard, potentially charged encounters with outlaws will follow. “Honestly,” Bartsch adds, “we also didn’t like the idea of meeting the increasing violence with potentially more violence.”

In Bartsch’s post to her neighbors, she wrote that she was saddened by the sometimes bloodthirsty tone on the discussion boards and in real-life conversations with neighbors. One resident on the community site Nextdoor had written of the burglars, “We have to speak their language—shoot to kill.” If the neighborhood cheered the shooting, Bartsch wrote, “then to me, we are just as big a set of thugs as the thieves. I’m not saying we let them run roughshod over our lives and take what they want. I’m saying we should follow the rule of law that is supposed to keep us civil, and detain and arrest without escalating beyond reasonable bounds. Would this guy have gotten away? Maybe. But then a neighbor would have lost some property and we’d have kept our dignity.”

Bartsch considered the what-ifs of a parent—what if Thomas had missed, hitting someone’s child? She also paraphrased her 11-year-old, who suggested that if everyone in the neighborhood took the money spent on security guards and put it into schools, perhaps the kids committing the crimes would have options other than stealing.

“Now, of course that’s a bit naïve, and the scale of the problem is bigger than that,” Bartsch tells me. “But I was very proud that she saw the kids who were stealing as people who needed options for productive and positive opportunities. A lot of my neighbors, the ones who were making the vicious comments, seemed not to value the lives of these people or see them as human at all.” She ended her post by writing, “I’m just sad about the whole thing and a little frightened of some of my neighbors now.”

A spirited exchange followed on the neighborhood discussion boards. One resident sarcastically said that the guard should have advised Ward to get counseling; another defended Bartsch, warning of the law of the jungle. Tomczykowska noted that Ward was out on bail for a felony robbery when he was shot by Thomas and referenced Bartsch’s kicker. “Out on $300,000 bail and prior arrests at 18 years old?” Tomczykowska wrote. “Don’t think he’s gotten the message. And to be scared of your neighbors? Really?”

The residents who posted generally supported Thomas—one called on neighbors to show up to his court dates if prosecutors took action against him—but few went as far as Perry, who said that he would have killed Ward. On the day that I visit him, Perry shakes his head at the memory of Bartsch’s manifesto. A third-generation Oaklander, Perry served in Vietnam with the navy and returned to the Town with a different philosophy on personal security than he’d had when he’d left. “You get used to providing security for yourself every day,” Perry tells me, “and it’s a lot to ask to hand it over to someone else to provide.”

After the television appearance during which he said that he would have killed Ward, Perry became the subject of a few posts on the discussion boards. “I think that’s sick,” one person wrote. “I think everyone,” wrote another, “would agree that the quote from the neighbor is extreme and should not be used to broadly paint the residents of the neighborhood.”

When I meet him, Perry is wearing Raiders sweatpants, slippers, a flannel shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest, and a gold Raiders watch. Unburdened by an ounce of self-doubt, he is the image of 1970s Oakland, an era of libertarian bad-assery that still shows up today in the city’s self-reliance backbone. “I was raised by very liberal parents and understand how people were upset by my words,” Perry says. “It’s not that there isn’t any compassion. It’s that some people”—Perry nods toward Bartsch’s home across the street—“don’t understand the reality of crime. If you don’t see it day to day to day, you think it can be handled in ways that it just can’t be handled.”

He characterizes his relationship with Bartsch before the shooting as “fine. We wouldn’t go out and get drinks, but we would say hi.” Now? “I don’t talk to them, they don’t talk to me,” Perry says with a wave of the hand. “They’re afraid of me for what I said. But what they don’t know is, I could save their life because I have the capacity.”

I ask Bartsch what impact the shooting and the heated online exchanges have had on her relationship with her neighbors. “I don’t think I know the answer to that question,” she says. “All I know is that I am now way more concerned about shootings happening in the street, when I used to find that pretty unimaginable. This is especially worrisome now that I realize how many of my neighbors seem to have guns and weapons in their homes and how willing they might be to use them.”

The full stakes of the debate over Thomas’s encounter with Ward became clear in late April. That’s when police announced the arrest of two men for the murder of Judy Salamon, the Pet Nanny. It turns out that Salamon, like Thomas, had decided to go beyond just observing and calling the police. Sergeant Mike Gantt, the lead investigator, says that Salamon caught the men engaged in a “street crime” and began video-recording them with her phone. When the men drove off, she followed them in her car. One of the suspects heaved a trash can at her Subaru and the other shot her dead. The men took her phone.

Gantt says that Salamon “was a brave lady” but that she should have called the police instead of tracking the two men. “We want residents to be vigilant,” Gantt says. “We don’t want them to be vigilantes.”

But the irony is clear. Salamon did the same thing that Rico Thomas did in pursuing Larry Ward. Only she ended up dead.

 

Most of the sound and fury in Oakland about the private security patrols has been ideological and abstract. Some critics wring their hands about “a police state without the police” and worry about the racial fault lines exposed by the patrols. But neither argument resonates with residents of all races who are fed up with being sitting ducks for burglary or worse.

For these Oaklanders, aside from the vexing question of whether the guards should be armed, effectiveness is the only real issue. Have private security guards lowered the crime rate in patrolled neighborhoods? It’s difficult to know for sure, but some evidence suggests that they have.

The official numbers on crime in Oakland are improving. So far in 2014, all crimes in Oakland are down from last year by 14 percent, according to OPD statistics. Residential burglaries decreased by an eye-opening 34 percent (930 compared with 1,400) from the same time in 2013.

At the Dimond Library meeting, a neighbor asked—pleaded with, really—Captain Ricardo Orozco to tell residents if they should pay for private patrols. The resident wanted to know if police attributed the dip in residential burglaries since 2012 to the guards. Orozco’s answer was appropriately noncommittal. “Extra eyes on the street are always good,” he said. “We always like it when neighbors come together.”

In Lower Rockridge, a neighborhood that uses patrols, resident Paul Liu, an economist at Google, conducted a three-month study in October 2013 in an attempt to figure out what the area’s crime rate would have been without security guards. Liu compared crime stats in his neighborhood with those in the nearby Temescal and Elmwood districts. While all three areas saw a dip, the crime rate in the patrolled Lower Rockridge swath was drastically lower. By Liu’s calculations, the private guards were responsible for a 46 percent reduction in crime overall.

To Liu, it seemed that the scarecrows worked. But did the criminals land in other neighborhoods instead? One of the critiques of security patrols is that they could simply drive crime further downhill, where residents can’t afford to hire security. Liu recently finished another study and concluded that crime in nearby neighborhoods did not increase significantly.

If the private patrols really are effective in reducing crime, there’s probably only one thing that will persuade residents to stop paying for them: a more effective police force. “Should OPD find a way to successfully recruit and retain officers at significantly higher levels than they are now,” Liu says, “I suspect folks will no longer feel the need for the patrols, and we would discontinue them.”

 

At an arraignment in February, Larry Ward stood ramrod straight in a canary-yellow jail suit and agreed to a pretrial hearing in May. He won’t be released anytime soon. Before he was jailed on charges of felony burglary and threatening Thomas’s life, he was out on bail after five felony counts from an October 2013 incident during which, police say, he robbed five people at gunpoint at a house party on Skyline Boulevard.

According to that complaint, Ward and two accomplices were arrested hours later while in a Burger King drive-through on International Boulevard. Ward was carrying a gun. Between the two cases, he’s facing three strikes. His visiting privileges were revoked at Santa Rita Jail, and he did not respond to letters.

Crime has continued in the Upper Dimond and Oakmore. Two weeks after the incident, a home a few blocks away on Lincoln Avenue was robbed and a residence one block north of Tomczykowska’s driveway was hit. Two garages a block off Waterhouse Road were burglarized within a month, and Perry tells me that a car in front of his home was broken into a week after the shooting. The “message” that some residents hoped criminals might receive has apparently not been delivered. (The Upper Dimond neighbors, however, did get a return from their surveillance network. Four suspects involved in the high-profile shooting of an 81-year-old woman during a home-invasion robbery two weeks before the Ward incident were arrested after cameras captured their faces and car make.)

After Ward was taken from her driveway on a gurney, Tomczykowska says, Thomas sat at the curb and asked for water and paper towels to wipe his brow. He was distraught. “He needed a few hugs,” she says. “He was out of it, as would anyone be in his position.”

Thomas declined to discuss the shooting through his manager at Security Code 3, Rich McDiarmid, and he’s since been transferred to another patrol beat within the company. “I didn’t want him being a sitting duck out there if Ward’s friends wanted revenge,” McDiarmid says. “I also don’t want residents throwing him a party and baking cakes.”

Thomas grew up in West Oakland. A standout football player at McClymonds High School, he was recruited by several colleges and played defensive back for one season at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Neighbors tell me that in the few months that he patrolled their streets, he blended into the community fabric. On foot patrols, he stopped to shoot hoops with Votel’s kids. He picked up newspapers for elderly residents at the bottom of their driveway and ran them up to the porch. He collected mail for vacationing neighbors. In return, they left cookies on his car and offered him bottles of water. They felt safer. They appreciated his presence.

So why did Thomas go beyond “observe and report” and chase Ward?

McDiarmid says that Thomas had a gun in the trunk of his Corolla because he was headed to a shooting range after work. When Thomas saw the stolen guns scattered in the yard, McDiarmid says, he feared that the burglars had other firearms and would use them. “These events happened boom, boom, boom,” McDiarmid says, “in a split second. Reactions come into play. Nobody wanted this to happen—especially Rico. He doesn’t even want to be a cop. But he had no choice.”

In fact, Thomas had a lot of choices to make and a lot of chances to opt out. Perhaps he chased Ward because he, like Votel—and Salamon—thought, “Oh, hell no!” After all, it’s his Oakland too.

Back on Waterhouse Road, the online debate faded. When Bartsch sent her email, she was aware of Ward’s criminal past and wrote, “Judging by this guy’s priors, he would’ve been caught another time.”

I ask her if she would have preferred to see a man who had allegedly committed an armed robbery get away and remain at large.

“Would I rather that Ward be on the street than potentially be shot dead over a property crime?” Bartsch asks. “Yes, I would. Would I rather Ward be on the street than have one of my kids get shot by accident when the guard misfires or in a potential crossfire? Yes, I would.

“Would I rather Ward be on the street than live in a world where we all lose our dignity and humaneness out of fear?”

“Yes, I would.”

 

Originally published in the June Issue of San Francisco.

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