Puck Lo

In gentrifying neighborhoods, residents say private patrols keep them safe

Oakland homeowners crowdfund to hire security guards, but critics say the patrols practice harassment

OAKLAND, Calif. — On a sunny weekday afternoon on the main drag of Rockridge, traffic moves slowly on narrow streets past yoga studios, expensive boutiques and an artisanal ice cream shop. Troy Matthews, a polite 47-year-old with a Southern accent, spends five days a week, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., cruising the residential streets and commercial strip of this Oakland neighborhood.

Matthews, a guard with the private security firm Premiere Protective Service (PPS), began patrolling Rockridge two months ago. He wears a badge and a dark blue outfit that resembles a police uniform. As he drives past a park on a quiet street, he smiles at adults and children.

Rockridge is an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Oakland, California. Residents used a crowdfunding website to hire private security guards. Now a second neighborhood, rapidly gentrifying Temescal, is following suit.
David Allen Corby

“I wave at everyone,” he says. A few people wave back.

Last September, two men, ages 17 and 22, held commuters at the Rockridge train station at gunpoint and robbed seven people of their laptops, smartphones and cash. That was the last straw for Paul Liu, a Google economist who lives in the neighborhood. Liu set up a fundraising page on the crowdfunding site CrowdTilt. Within a few hours, he had reached his $8,200 goal; in total, online campaigns have raised $90,000 for private patrols in Rockridge. This fund now pays for Matthews’ salary.

Some 3,500 households in Oakland pay for neighborhood patrols, according to the area’s three main security companies, PPS, Intervention Group Inc. (IGI) and Bay Alarm. Rockridge, perhaps the first to use crowdsourcing to hire private patrols, has inspired another Oakland neighborhood to follow suit.

Nationally, private security neighborhood patrols have gained in popularity in cities with shrinking municipal budgets and police forces, including Atlanta, Detroit, Houston and New Orleans. In those cities, homeowners’ associations and gated communities have increasingly hired security forces over the past decade. But in Oakland, the trend is spreading into mixed-income, non-gated communities.

If you want to bring down robbery, you’ve got to reduce the unemployment rate in the city.

Barry Krisberg

Law professor, University of California, Berkeley

The Brookings Institution recently named Oakland, where a technology boom has fueled rapid gentrification, the seventh most unequal city in the country. For critics, the patrols are the latest symbol of this inequality.

In Oakland’s lowest-income neighborhoods, as many as 40 percent of people live below the poverty line. The city had 4,338 robberies in 2012, the highest per capita rate in the country, according to FBI data. Unemployment in Oakland last August was 11 percent, compared with a national average at the time of 7 percent.

Some criminal justice experts say the solution to crime isn’t more patrolling but greater opportunities for young people and people coming out of prison. “If you want to bring down robbery, you’ve got to reduce the unemployment rate in the city,” says Barry Krisberg, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Police, meanwhile, say the answer to crime is more cops, who — unlike the private patrols — can investigate crimes, do follow-up and put together cases. But because of city budget cuts, the local police department has shed 162 jobs, or 20 percent of its staff, since 2010.

Oakland Police Capt. Anthony Toribio meets every month with the city’s three main security companies and says he has a good relationship with them. But, he says, “I can’t say what impact private security has had in crime. There has been private security in the Oakland Hills many years, and I can’t say definitively that’s made crime go elsewhere.”

Oakland's police force, though, has its critics, too. The department has long been under fire for misconduct and constitutional violations. Following a decade of foot-dragging on reviewing excessive force complaints and complying with federally mandated reforms, in 2013 a federal judge appointed an overseer to keep the department on track.

Private patrols, meanwhile, operate with less oversight and under a different set of standards than police do, observers say. Unlike the public police, they’re not under constitutional mandate to reveal their methods and keep or share their records — including whether they follow laws and company rules or engage in racial profiling.

“There’s a degree of ambiguity about how private patrols actually operate,” said David Sklansky, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.  

Patrol area for the Rockridge neighborhood.
Puck Lo

Each private security firm negotiates with the neighborhood that hires it to determine whether guards carry guns and other weapons. Rockridge’s contract, for instance, does not permit guns.

In February, in the wealthy Oakland neighborhood of Oakmore, a security guard chased, shot and injured an 18-year-old man who was later convicted of burglary. The guard’s contract with the neighborhood did not permit him to be armed. (Oakland police say they are still investigating why the guard was carrying a gun.)

Some Rockridge residents say the patrols have been effective in reducing stubbornly high robbery rates. Liu compared the rates of robberies and burglaries in the five months since private patrols began with the rate of incidents over a “baseline” period of four weeks before the patrols started, and found they had dropped by 43 percent.

However, two sociology professors, Hiroshi Fukurai with the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Traci Schlesinger with DePaul University, say the reduction that Liu’s study found is “statistically insignificant,” because of the short time frame of his baseline period. Schlesinger said Liu’s methods don’t take into account other factors that would explain a change in crime rates, like unemployment, housing and income inequality.

Creating more divisions

A crowdfunding campaign for private patrols launched in April by residents of Temescal, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood adjacent to Rockridge, has split the neighborhood. Critics of the campaign, which met its $15,750 goal on Thursday night*, say that increased policing — whether public or private — will only send more low-income youth of color to prison.

The Kingfish Café and Pub in Temescal, a mixed-income neighborhood in Oakland.
David Allen Corby

Dania Cabello, a youth educator with the Temescal Community Safety Coalition, recalls a meeting held last fall by residents who wanted to bring private patrols to the neighborhood. A security guard with the company ANI Private Security told attendees, “We target people who look like they don’t belong here.”

That approach, she says, is “creating even more division within an already fragmented community in Oakland.” Cabello says she instead wants to see the neighborhood raise money for youth programs or a community center.

Others worry that crowdsourcing bypasses the democratic process. In Rockridge, there was no City Council vote or public announcement to hire the patrols — just a handful of people with money who were making policy decisions for the entire neighborhood, says Sarah Fielding, a recently graduated law student who lives in Temescal. Approximately 226 people contributed the initial $20,000 for Liu’s crowdfunding campaign — less than 6 percent of the neighborhood known as Lower Rockridge.

“You don’t have to knock on anyone’s door,” says Fielding. “You don’t have to talk to anyone who signs up. You don’t have to deal with them even for a minute — just send your check here.”

People don’t know if we’re OPD or not.

Nathan Cook

General manager, IGI

Matthews carries handcuffs, but no gun, as he patrols Rockridge. A security guard for 10 years, he previously worked the graveyard shift at a nursing home. His job now, he says, is to “observe and report” to the police.

Matthews, who moved to the Bay Area from New Orleans a decade ago, says he “doesn’t stereotype” or make assumptions. In fact, he’s very hands-off. If he saw a person climbing through the window of a house, Matthews said, he would wait and watch from his car, rather than immediately call the cops. “The road to hell is paved with gung-ho,” he says.

IGI, the security company Temescal residents are seeking to hire, takes a more aggressive approach.

Nathan Cook, IGI’s general manager, says the company would not patrol Temescal with armed guards. But in order to be a “visible deterrent to crime,” IGI’s cars have spotlights and resemble Oakland Police Department vehicles, he said. Often, Cook said, “people don’t know if we’re OPD or not.”

IGI officers greet “everyone,” Cook said, from “people walking dogs” to “someone sitting in their car,” and ask if the guards can provide assistance. Cook says it’s common for people who have been sitting in cars, presumably casing houses for break-ins, to immediately leave the area after being approached by a guard.

Cook considers that crime deterrence. Others, like youth educator Cabello, call it harassment. 

You can’t really avoid being suspicious in this city past the hour of 7 if you’re black. That’s just how it is.

Bianca Brooks

Student at Oakland Technical High School

Bianca Brooks, a senior at Temescal’s Oakland Technical High School, a 10-minute walk from Rockridge, says she wouldn’t “necessarily be opposed” to private patrols. Brooks lives in a mixed-income and racially diverse area a few miles south of the north Oakland neighborhood.

“My house was robbed, and it took over three hours for police to come,” Brooks said. “You’d think they would have put more patrols in the area. But a few weeks later my neighbor was held at gunpoint in our building. If she had not screamed, who knows what could have happened.”

The police never found the assailants in either incident, she says.

However, Brooks, who is black, says she is also worried about how private patrol guards might perceive her. “You can’t really avoid being suspicious in this city past the hour of 7 if you’re black. That’s just how it is.”

*Editor's note: The total for Temescal's online fundraising campaign has been updated to reflect the latest information.

Related News

Silicon Valley
Crime, Police

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Silicon Valley
Crime, Police

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter