Shop owners meet Attorney General and OPD chief to discuss crime issues

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About 30 business owners gathered at the Dimond branch of the Oakland Library on Wednesday to share their concerns about public safety with local officials. Attorney General Rob Bonta, OPD leader LeRonne Armstrong and council members Sheng Thao and Noel Gallo answered questions from traders in attendance.

It was the latest attempt to organize store owners from three business districts – Laurel, Dimond and Bret Harte – to discuss their experiences with public safety in front of their political representatives. The event was organized by Daniel Swafford, Executive Director of the Laurel District Association, Jose “Cheo” Ortiz of La Perla, a Puerto Rican restaurant in the Dimond District, and staff at Council Member Gallo.

“We’re here to bring people together because the companies of Laurel, Dimond and Bret Harte don’t interact with each other, and we need to talk about safety [in our neighborhoods]said Ortiz during the reunion.

The conversation arose out of business owners’ concerns about the rising rate of violent crime, including shootings and homicides. Prior to the meeting, the Laurel District Association sent an online business assessment survey to business owners in its area to get a sense of the challenges store owners face. Over 200 people responded to the survey, and the main concern was crime. Business owners and others said they were increasingly concerned about thefts, car break-ins and generally felt unsafe walking around these shopping districts at night .

According to Oakland police data, violent crime is on the rise. However, property crimes have not increased significantly in recent years. Residential and auto burglaries were down 31% and 10% respectively last year. Business burglaries have not increased significantly over the past three years. Rapes were down 25% last year from the three-year average.

Yet the perception is that many neighborhoods in Oakland are unsafe due to a spike in violent gun crime. And property crime is still a major problem, despite recent declines.

“People become more responsive when they know they’re being heard,” Swafford told The Oaklandside, who moderated the discussion. He thinks having Bonta and Armstrong on the panel has sparked more interest from the trading community.

Questions about OPD’s budget and resources

Business owners asked elected officials at the meeting about what they are doing to improve public safety at the neighborhood level. Jose Dorado, owner of Dorado Tax & Bookkeeping Services on Fruitvale Avenue, who also served on the Police Commission, wondered why there weren’t more community resource officers assigned around the area. “Community policing is key here,” the Fruitvale native said.

Chief LeRonne Armstrong said he would like to introduce more CROs to business districts like Dimond, Bret Harte and Laurel, but cited OPD funding as a setback. “It happens, but it’s unfortunate that our budget has fallen so low,” Armstrong said.

In fact, the City Council increased the Oakland Police Department’s budget by $38.5 million for fiscal years 2021-23 to a total of $674 million. The city council also recently approved funding for two new police academies and the hiring of a recruiting firm to help fill a significant void in vacant officer positions.

But Armstrong and some other city officials argue that the OPD remains underfunded compared to the city’s overall public safety needs. The OPD is currently budgeted to have 737 officers, but the actual number fluctuates due to retirements, officer resignations and layoffs. As of December, the OPD had 677 officers, fewer than many experts believe is needed to properly patrol the city.

Tony Duncan, whose family owns the 2101 Club in Dimond and the Laurel Lounge in Laurel, wants to know what is being done to curb activity and speeding on MacArthur Boulevard; his two businesses are located on this street. “Three years ago, the Laurel Lounge was hit [by a car] and we’ve been closed for a few days, so we want to know what we can do,” Duncan said.

Council member Thao told Duncan and other business owners that she was advocating for funding for a study to analyze road safety along MacArthur. Thao also hinted at the possibility of securing funding for a project similar to the traffic-calming renovations being done on Telegraph Avenue. “I don’t want to replicate Telegraph Avenue exactly because it’s a bit of a mess, but we can learn from its mistakes,” Thao said.

Rob Bonta, who was previously a member of the California 18th Assembly District representing Oakland, was asked how Gov. Gavin Newsom’s real public safety plan was being implemented at the local level. The initiative, which was announced last December, aims to tackle crime in the state by providing $255 million in grants to local law enforcement agencies and providing assistance to small businesses that have been robbed.

Bonta began his response by speaking broadly about the need for public safety. “We must do everything in our power to hold people accountable when they break the law, and we must also address the root causes to prevent recidivism,” Bonta said. He then spoke generally about the work that local law enforcement agencies like Oakland have undertaken to curb criminal activity, such as suppressing human trafficking and suppressing groups involved in the sale of illegal firearms. Bonta also mentioned that funding relief will be available for small businesses that have been victims of retail theft.

Some business owners said they left the meeting satisfied that they were able to voice their concerns from the comfort of their neighborhood.

“It can be very difficult for business owners to see their needs reflected city-wide because they’re so busy and don’t have time to go to a six-hour meeting or go with a department head,” Swaford says.

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