For years, Oakland hills residents have complained about the lack of police officers in their neighborhoods. City leaders and the Oakland Police Department have typically responded by saying they need to focus police resources on reducing violent crime in the city's flatland areas. But over the past year, as burglaries have skyrocketed in Oakland and the city has struggled to increase the size of its police force, many hills residents have taken matters into their own hands, banding together to hire private security guards to patrol their streets, the San Francisco Chronicle reported over the weekend. And while the move by hills residents makes sense — it appears to be working — it also raises some key concerns that the city must address.
Although some people might be queasy about the thought of having private security companies patrol large portions of Oakland, the idea actually represents a cost-effective solution to some of the city's crime issues. It also appears to be a creative way to deal with Oakland's financial restraints.
Burglaries have long been a significant problem in the city, and it's been getting worse. The number of burglaries has grown by nearly 40 percent since 2011. But it's never made financial sense for the city to have highly paid police officers drive around the hills in the hopes of preventing criminals from breaking into people's homes — the average cop costs the city about $185,000 in pay and benefits. As such, the city and OPD have been right over the years to direct police resources to where Oakland needs them the most — in high-crime areas.
In addition, patrolling the hills in an attempt to dissuade burglars is, at its core, a job better suited for a security guard. The guards, after all, don't need to be highly trained, so they're less expensive. The Chronicle reported that 45 residents of the woodsy Sequoyah Hills neighborhood pay just $20 a month each to have a security company patrol their streets. It would cost the city much more than that to pay a police officer to do the same job.
Some people may also argue that hills residents already pay taxes and shouldn't have to spend more for private security. In truth, however, most hills residents are well-off and can afford to pay more — many homeowners in the hills have spent thousands of dollars on burglar-alarm systems, for instance. Moreover, well-to-do families in Oakland make similar financial choices all the time: They pay taxes and then pay extra to send their children to private school. Or they make large donations to their kids' public schools to improve their educational opportunities. Paying $20 a month for private security — when they already pay taxes for police — is not that different.
Others may argue it's not fair that wealthy and middle-class residents can afford to pay extra for security, while people living in poorer neighborhoods can't. In truth, however, wealthy and middle-class residents have long had the ability to buy security in ways that low-income residents can't — by purchasing expensive homes in safer neighborhoods, for example. In addition, Oakland already directs lots of financial resources — in the form of police — to fight crime in low-income areas. (Unfortunately, OPD has historically been ineffective at fighting crime, but that's a separate problem.)
In a perfect world, Oakland would have enough money to pay for adequate police services throughout the city. But it doesn't. In fact, the city collects far fewer tax dollars per capita than most other Bay Area cities. Richmond, for example, receives about $1,366 in tax revenues per capita for its general fund compared to Oakland's $1,033. And Berkeley collects approximately $1,317 per capita for its general fund. As a result, other cities can afford to spend more on public services — including police — than Oakland. This situation is made worse by the fact that Oakland should be spending more than those cities because its crime rate is much higher.
It's important to note that Oakland's revenue problem is not caused by local taxes being too low — they're not. Oakland has one of the highest per capita tax rates in the region. The problem is that Oakland has a lot of people who don't make much income — and so don't pay a lot of taxes. The city also doesn't have a large enough business-tax base.
As a result, the city simply doesn't have as much money to pay for police officers as other cities do. And it certainly doesn't have enough to pay for cops to drive around the hills — which stretch the entire length of the city — watching out for possible thieves. As we've previously noted, Oakland also has another problem: Its police officer compensation is unsustainably high. Consequently, the city has fewer police officers per capita than similar cities, even though it devotes a higher percentage of its general fund revenues to policing.
In short, having less-expensive private security guards patrolling relatively safe neighborhoods is a not a bad idea for a city like Oakland. And it appears as if this trend is going to grow rapidly in neighborhoods near and above the MacArthur Freeway. But the trend also raises some concerns: How well trained are these security guards? Will they call an actual police officer if they see someone committing a serous crime or will they attempt a citizen's arrest? And what protections are in place to ensure they won't target people as being suspicious just because of the color of their skin?
These are important questions, and ones that the city should start to address, because it looks as if private policing is here to stay.