Each week the emails arrive like warning bells to notify residents of smashed car windows, house break-ins and even the occasional carjacking or armed robbery.
They come with subject lines like, "smashed car window on 5500 block of Merriewood," or "stolen license plates common problem." The emailer is Jim Dexter, Neighborhood Watch Group (NWG) captain for the Thornhill/Merriewood Drive region and Public Safety Committee chair for the Beat 13Y Neighborhood Council.
He sends between 10 and 50 virtual alerts each week, which go out to residents of his particular NWG as well as a list of people from more than 50 NWGs across Beat 13 (X, Y and Z). The Beat 13 region stretches from the Contra Costa-Berkeley border to College Avenue to Joaquin Miller Road.
Dexter also emails an Oakland Police Department (OPD) list, which reaches more than 600 people -- anybody signed up for alerts in the District 1 half of Oakland. He estimates that about 65 percent of neighbors in his NWG are signed up for notifications, though he wishes it were 100 percent.
"The idea is that each member of the NWG will communicate to me that an incident has happened, then I broadcast that to everyone," Dexter says. "I keep the list secret and confidential, so that no one knows the address of all the other people."
While most alerts involve home and car break-ins, an email on June 15 informed residents of a car theft at Thornhill Elementary School in broad daylight
As crime rates in Montclair have spiked in recent months, members of the hills community have launched a series of prevention efforts with a June 21 workshop. The Problem Solving Officer assigned to Montclair spoke on crime trends June 28 at the North Hills Community Association monthly meeting, and a June 30 workshop discussed a neighborhood-funded mass installation of video surveillance systems.
Dexter, a retired technical writer, has lived in Montclair for more than 27 years. He has personally been victim to numerous car break-ins, and once had his vehicle stolen and later recovered by Oakland police.
Dexter founded several pieces of the current Neighborhood Watch system, including the North Hills Community Association.
He believes a neighborhood watch is the only practical means of protection against crime available to residents.
"We can't depend upon police," he says. "We can't depend on private patrol. We can't depend on alarm companies to respond in time. So, bottom line is, neighborhood watch."
As jazz music drifts over the potted plants that dot his porch, Dexter lets spill a wealth of knowledge and opinions formed over years of involvement with City Council meetings, crime prevention programs, and collaborations with the OPD.
"I think crime is up because criminals know there're no police -- it's open season," he says.
In fact, Oakland's officer count has dropped in recent years from more than 830 to 640 enlisted officers, more than 100 of which are off duty due to illness, injury, or other reasons.
A lone Problem Solving Officer, Jo Balaoro, is assigned (under Measure Y) to the Montclair Hills, as well as all of Beat 13.
"That one officer is the PSO, not patrol," says Dexter. "But (the police department's) patrol is so understaffed that we can't get a patrol officer up here."
Dexter says his group does not organize neighborhood patrols, carry guns or promote any confrontation with suspects.
"We just watch," he says, noting that the watch reports suspicious activity to the Neighborhood Council, which in turn reports to Oakland police.
"We do our normal routine, but we're just much more aware," he continues.
To anyone interested getting involved with neighborhood crime prevention, he suggests talking to neighbors already involved, joining the appropriate email list and attending City Council and community meetings.
Dexter's top three tips for protecting personal property are: 1) install surveillance cameras on your property; 2) keep your vehicle completely empty and 3) photograph the serial numbers of all expensive electronic goods you own so police can return them to you if they are recovered.
"It comes down to just watching our neighbors, looking around, seeing which cars are on the street, observing people walking down the street," he says. "Just being aware of your surroundings is our only real protection."