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Interview with Oakland Police Officer: Neighborhood Watch Make Cities Safer

Oakland is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. A city of 396,000 residents, Oakland saw 127 murders and 271 reported rapes. in 2012. There were also 4,338 robberies that year, giving Oakland the highest robbery rate of any major American city since 2000. This is a city that I drive through almost every day. Participating in this challenge has sparked my curiosity to learn more about efforts to prevent crime and keep Oakland residents safe. I reached out to the police department and spoke to Officer Brenda Ivey, Police Service Technician. I've seen some terrific posts already on neighborhood watch, and I hope my interview notes builds on those with an interesting perspective.

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First, some background...
"Neighborhood watch started in Oakland in 1966. The city needs community input to police the city.Where neighbors know each other cities are safer."

"The police department offers community trainings on home security, self protection and the proper use of 911."

Key points the police teach community members
  • Lighting is your cheapest version of security. Burglers don’t like to be seen
  • Shrubbery in front should be cut down so no one can jump out and do an assault
  • Don’t open doors unless you know the person
  • There have been an increase of cases of people kicking down front door. You should have a solid wood front door with a top grade lock and a deadbolt that is at least 1 inch long
  • Your windows should lock
  • Don’t leave ladders or tools on your landscape that could help someone break in
  • Alarms and surveillance cameras are good
  • If you go out of town, tell your neighbors and have them take care of your trash and mail so it doesn’t look like you’re out of town
  • Make sure your house numbers are large with contrasting colors so they’re easy to see at night. We don’t want the ambulance losing time if you need emergency services
  • For self protection, the key is awareness. Always look around. Don’t step out of your house talking on the phone. You need to be able to use all your facilities when you go out.
  • People are supposed to ride bikes on the street, not sidewalk. If you see them on the sidewalk, go into a building and wait for them to pass.
  • When you drive, have your windows up and cars locked to avoid carjackings.
  • When you park, close the windows and lock the doors so someone doesn’t enter your car and wait for you to return.
  • Women shouldn’t carry purses hanging low in their hand or in elbow. They should hold it on shoulder and hold strap and base, or put it inside their jacket.
  • Keep a whistle and squeeze light on your key chain. Check your car when you get in it.
  • When you go out at night, carry a personal safety device -- a rolled up magazine or a maglite can be used to protect yourself. Mace or pepper spray can be good, but you need to be careful.
  • If someone is in your house, you’re legally allowed to apply the same amount of force as that being threatened to you.

Can you tell me a bit about neighborhood watch in Oakland?
There are neighborhood watch meetings every week. Block captains meet once a month.

There are 900 watch groups. Meetings average between 6 and 20 people.
Neighborhood crime prevention councils enable community members to meet police staff to talk about problems. The community can prioritize their requests, and then the police will try to solve problems and give progress reports. This allows community members to gain personal points of contact that they would not have without attending the meetings.  

How does neighborhood watch help make women safer and more empowered?
It’s a chance to meet your neighbors and find out who can help you. If you’re a single lady and you’re concerned about getting out of your car at night, you can find out what neighbors would be available to receive your phone call and help you get into your home safely.

How does the city help children stay safe?
As part of neighborhood watch, neighbors can set up safety houses in case kids get locked out of their homes. 

We have a youth safety program. We go to schools and teach kids not to talk to strangers, how to say no to an adult that is trying to take you against your will or touch you inappropriately. We teach kids how to call 911, and we do safety drills.

We also fingerprint children to have an identification for them in case they become a missing person. At age 5 fingerprints stay the same. For babies, we use their feet. Up to age 5, we do the whole hand.

What is the biggest safety threat for women in Oakland? Is it from people they know or don’t know?
People they don’t know. Armed robbery is the biggest threat for women.

Is that only at night?
Day or night. Burglars are opportunists. They’re just waiting for you to not pay attention.

Does the city offer any help in making sure your home is safe?
We have a program on crime prevention through environmental design. We go to your house and check it for safety concerns. It’s a free service. Often single women will call for an inspection when they buy a home.

Have street lights been helpful in keeping people safe?
Street lights are effective. We recently changed the voltage in all the street lights. If the light goes out, the neighborhood service coordinator can facilitate the process of getting it fixed. We feel the program is successful and its growing. The neighborhood service coordinator is a civilian counterpart to the police that work on educating and engaging the community.

How do people learn about your programs and the information you’re sharing?
We have a volunteer that sends newsletters out to burglar victims. We have refresher trainings in the community. A lot of our business is from referrals. National Night Out also lets us meet a lot of people, and its a great chance for neighbors that don’t attend neigborhood watch meetings to get to know each other. Last year, 10,000 people participated in our Night Out event. Its one night in August and is a national celebration against crime where community members feel safe to be on the street.
What would you like to see more of to make your work more successful?
It would be nice to have more staff. We went from a thirteen person staff to a staff of two. It’s a lot of work to cover this whole city.

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Jason - Thanks so much for this interview about neighborhood watch programs. I found this presentation that reviewed the effectiveness of neighborhood watch programs across the U.S. that you may find interesting.
http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/Publications/e040825133-res-review3.pdf
A key thing I missed when thinking about neighborhood watch programs was how they need to regularly communicate with existing law enforcement to really nurture community safety. Audree F. wrote a great write-up about improving relations with local police below:
http://openideo.com/challenge/womens-safety/research/improving-relations-between-the-police-and-local-communities
Excited to see how we can pull these insights into the Idea phase. Thanks again Jason for the interview.

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