OAKLAND -- Rockridge residents who organized private security guards for the area have regrouped as a new organization called Safer Rockridge.
Safer Rockridge will maintain private patrols across Lower Rockridge, a step many residents see as necessary until Oakland police staffing levels go up. The group also hopes to reach a wider section of the community after some dissent among residents who live in the patrol zone.
"We're doing our best to work with people that have concerns and minimize their concerns," said David Lorie, an attorney, local resident and member of the board of Safer Rockridge. The new organization is a nonprofit and merges together three separate areas in Rockridge that had set up private patrols last fall.
The patrols initially began in November after a series of unusually intense robberies in a short time, including the midmorning armed burglary of an office in a residential neighborhood near a popular toddler park and the mugging of about 20 people at the "casual carpool" spot for commuters.
"We really felt there was a crisis," Lorie said.
A group of neighbors held a meeting and, in what seems to have been the first time crowdfunding was used for such a purpose, the group put up a site for proposed patrols in Lower Rockridge and solicited donations. The goal of $20,000 was quickly achieved and two similar copycat sites were soon up for other regions of Rockridge.
The patrols were handled by VMASecurity Group, with a single security car patrolling the neighborhood for most of the day and into the night. Although the guard could not make arrests, he could contact the police if he saw a crime in progress or suspicious behavior.
But not everyone in the patrol area was happy about that. Irene Yen, an epidemiologist and a resident of the patrolled area, was one of those dismayed by the initial proposal.
Yen is one a group of neighbors who have organized under the name Safer Oakland For All. The group opposes having patrols for several reasons, including that measures such as private security ignore the racial and class elements of the situation. The group also thinks it potentially makes people feel unwelcome or anxious that they'll be tagged as "suspicious," just because of the way they look, whether they belong to the neighborhood or are just visiting.
"Some of our kids wear hoodies," she said. "Some of our kids don't look like they could live in Piedmont."
Yen also believes that paying for fee-based services like this make people unwilling to pay additional taxes for police or other services in the future.
Other points of contention also appeared along the way. One of the most controversial issues among neighbors was whether or not the guard should be armed. Eventually, the VMA guard did not carry a weapon, but the issue was divisive. So too was the fact that a patrol does not need a quorum of neighbors to be initiated, only enough money from whomever does approve.
For Lorie, the issue has partly been one of communication -- or a lack of it. While some people in the neighborhood felt their concerns were being ignored, he said the original organizers were simply swamped. "It wasn't a matter of being secretive, it was a matter of being overwhelmed with emails," Lorie said.
That's why Lorie now wants to make sure that everybody understands what's going on and has a chance to weigh in -- even if they disagree. To that end, on the group's website there is a sign-up for the mailing list, information about finances and even a photo and contact information for the patrolling guard.
Another goal behind the founding of Safer Rockridge is to simplify administration and billing after the first successful round of crowdfunding. The group contracted with a new firm, Premiere Protective Services, after original security company VMA pulled out.
"We felt we had been making a small difference as a deterrent by doing the patrols, but as we had not been a traditional patrol company, I did not foresee the tremendous cost associated with maintaining a patrol," said Vince Mackey, chief executive officer of VMA, in an email.
The Premiere security guards will be unarmed. Instead of households contracting privately with VMA, as before, Safer Rockridge as a whole will buy the services of Premiere, relying on donations in what Lorie calls a "public radio model."
Safer Rockridge's goal is to raise $19,000 a month. For that money, two cars will patrol every day for 12 hours over the area established by the three original crowdfunding campaigns. The boundaries will be Woolsey Street in the north, 51st Street in the south, Telegraph Avenue in the west and Broadway, Broadway Terrace and Acacia Avenue in the east.
As of the first week of April, the group had raised about $19,800, with more than $9,600 set to continue monthly from more than 400 households. Safer Rockridge said the current funds will pay for two patrol cars in April, patrolling every day but for fewer hours.
Meanwhile, Yen and the other members of Safer Oakland For All will continue to meet, she said, and will look for ways to make an impact on the underlying conditions that make crime prevalent citywide, and to continue the conversation among neighbors. But she doesn't expect the patrols to end soon.
"That's not realistic," she said.
Lorie said nobody wants the patrols to be permanent and said residents are just trying to find a stopgap measure while the police force is understaffed.
"We view this as a temporary measure," he said.