Oakland is the robbery capital of America.

In a city where the murder rate is tracked like a stock index, robberies are actually the crime that sets Oakland apart from other violent cities, putting everyone at risk.

Oaklanders endured one robbery for every 91 residents last year. That not only was the city's highest robbery rate in two decades, it was the highest of any major American city since 2000, according to FBI figures analyzed by this newspaper.

During the first half of 2012, the most recent period for which the FBI has comparative data, Oakland's robbery rate was a staggering 36 percent higher than the second-ranked city, Cleveland.

Locally, Oakland's robbery rate was nearly double that of Richmond's and more than three times greater than Hayward's.

Police say Oaklanders are being preyed upon by a growing number of stickup men and purse snatchers who have been lured from the drug trade by a thriving black market for cellphones. The new breed of robbers are younger, better armed and much less likely to get caught than their predecessors. And they are encountering an understaffed, technologically deficient police force that has struggled both to make arrests and document the number of arrests that have been made.

"Things have gotten really bad the last two years," said Steve Ma, whose Lake Merritt area restaurant, Woody's Cafe, was held up last year by two gunmen, who also robbed all of the customers inside.

Ma said the gunmen were calm, and so were his customers, very few of whom have deserted him. "People are just getting used to this being the way Oakland is," he said.

Oakland reported 4,338 robberies last year -- the most since 1993. That's 12 robberies a day. It's nearly four times as many robberies as the 1,208 reported in San Jose, a city with more than double Oakland's population.

Mayor Jean Quan called the city's robbery figures "completely unacceptable." She is seeking City Council approval to pay for more police and is awaiting crime-reduction recommendations from a consultant team led by former NYPD Chief Bill Bratton. Bratton's initial recommendations, which will focus on robberies and burglaries, are scheduled for release this week.

Crime of fear

Unlike burglaries, which occur when the victim is away, robberies, whether it's a mugging or a carjacking, involve unprovoked confrontations, making it one of the greatest detriments to a city's quality of life, said Duke University professor Philip Cook.

The robbery surge hasn't dampened Oakland's red hot housing market or its thriving restaurant scene. But the growing threat of armed gunmen grabbing cellphones, jewelry and cash from people on the street has taken its toll.

Property owners report losing tenants who've been mugged outside their homes, business groups have hired private security and residents are thinking twice about walking the streets alone at night.

"I drive pretty much everywhere once it's dark," said Maura McLoughlin, who was shoved to the ground and robbed by two teens near Oakland High School. "I live about two blocks from Whole Foods, and I drive there."

Oakland's top robbery hot spots are the downtown, Lake Merritt area and the Fruitvale district, police said. Unlike homicides, which are concentrated in certain sections of the city, robberies are occurring all over town.

Bus stops and BART stations always are hot spots, and individuals are targeted more than businesses, according to police. Quite a few victims have been Hispanic women wheeling strollers, said Lt. Oliver Cunningham, who oversees robbery investigations.

Hispanics and Asians are disproportionately targeted, police say, because robbers think the largely immigrant populations are less likely to resist or report the crime.

Robberies up

Robberies increased 29 percent in Oakland last year, compared to 10 percent in San Jose and 13 percent in San Francisco, according to department reports filed with the FBI.

This year has started out even worse. While shootings and homicides are down in Oakland, robberies are up another 22 percent over this time last year. With Oakland short on police officers and the department's investigative capacity decimated by budget cuts, many robbers never face justice. Since 2009, the year before a major police layoff, robberies have increased 50 percent, while robbery arrests have dropped 40 percent, according to police records.

Budget constraints continue to hamstring anti-robbery efforts. With the department under orders to rein in runaway overtime spending, Chief Howard Jordan in March limited overtime for robbery investigations to prioritize homicide investigations and filling chronically understaffed patrol beats.

"When people call 911, we have to be able to send officers to that call for service," he said.

Reduced police staffing doesn't necessarily correlate with robbery spikes. In the mid-1990s, robberies dropped along with police staffing, police records show.

But Oakland's robbery troubles have worsened since 80 police officers were laid off in 2010. That budget cut left Oakland with half as many robbery investigators and nearly one-third as many units that can conduct robbery suppressions.

Of Oakland's 4,338 robberies last year, police could account for only 322 robbery arrests. That's a rate of about eight arrests per 100 robberies -- nearly four times lower than the national average, Cook said.

But department officials are certain that arrests, which clerks manually log into a database, have long been undercounted.

"I don't know where the breakdown is, but that data is not appearing," Sgt. Chris Bolton said, citing a recent audit. Bolton said the department is trying to secure a system that would allow it to automatically download booking information from county jails.

More robbers

With stolen phones selling for between $50 and $400, an increasing number of younger criminals have given up the drug trade to enter the robbery business, police say.

"Would you rather stand on the corner for eight hours a day ... and make $100," Cunningham asked, "or would you rather in 30 seconds prey on a victim, snatch their phone and sell it on the black market for $300 bucks?"

When police busted a major robbery outfit ¿last year, robberies didn't go down as expected, Bolton said. "Someone else took their place."

With their numbers diminished, police say they have gotten better at gathering intelligence and collaborating with outside agencies -- improvements they expect will help to turn the tide.

"There is not a single district right now where robbery is not a major priority of the commander," Cunningham said. "Back in the day it was drugs, drugs, drugs. That's the least of our concerns right now."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.

Oakland crime rankings
Robbery: 1
Homicide: 9
Assault: 15
Burglary: 61
Source: FBI 2011 statistics

Avoiding robberies
Always conceal cellphones and cash.
Don't make cellphone calls while walking on the street.
Avoid walking alone at night near BART stations.
Record cellphone serial numbers so phones can be returned if stolen and found.
Install tracking software on cellphones.
Be aware of your surroundings and call 510-777-3333 to report suspicious persons.
Source: Oakland Police Department