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What's Driving Oakland's Robbery Epidemic?

Answer: Smartphones. And law enforcement experts say cellphone companies could make our streets a lot safer if they would install kill switches that make their phones inoperable when stolen.



On a Wednesday evening, just a few weeks before the November 2012 election, Oakland City Council candidate Dan Kalb was robbed while on his way home from a local neighborhood meeting. Kalb's campaign platform had centered in part on reducing crime in his North Oakland district, and as he drove home from the Golden Gate Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meeting, he slipped a white iPhone earbud into his ear to receive a call from a voter. Minutes later, at 8:35 p.m., Kalb got out of his vehicle a half-block from his Temescal house, and, still distracted by the phone call, opened the trunk of his car to retrieve some campaign pamphlets. Someone poked him in the ribs from behind.

"I thought it was a neighbor saying, 'hi,'" Kalb recalled. "But it was a guy with a gun. I dropped everything, including the phone. It all happened in less than a minute."

Kalb tried to bargain with the thief, offering him the money from his wallet, but the man was focused on Kalb's iPhone 4S. After spotting the phone amid the scattered papers that Kalb had dropped on the pavement, the thief snatched it and jumped into a car and fled. He was gone long before the police arrived ten minutes later.

The armed robbery inspired a flurry of media reports. News crews and reporters came to Kalb's house. "Kind of ironic, isn't it?" he told them. "It can happen to anybody."

In fact, it's been happening to a lot of people, not only in Kalb's North Oakland district, but throughout the city. Over the past few years, Oakland has become known as the robbery capital of America. And this year, the number of robberies has leapt higher still — even as all other major violent crime categories have dropped in Oakland. As of last week, robberies were up 24 percent in the city compared to the same period in 2012, and armed robberies have soared by 45 percent.

The robbery surge has not only deepened Oakland's reputation for being a crime-ridden city, but it also has put longtime residents on edge. A recent poll commissioned by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce found that 55 percent of respondents said they now feel "less safe." In fact, several neighborhoods throughout the city have decided in recent weeks to hire private security companies to patrol their areas in an effort to stop the robbery epidemic from spreading.

"Every robbery requires an element of force or fear — there's an overwhelming sense of vulnerability that comes with the crime," noted Oakland police Lieutenant Chris Bolton, who works in the department's geographic Area 2, which includes the city's Temescal district. "People are feeling victimized in their own neighborhoods. These types of crimes are toxic to the feeling of safety."

According to law enforcement experts, the driving force behind the robbery outbreak nationwide is the expanding global market for stolen electronics — including cellphones, tablets, and laptops. Oakland police officials say that some criminal street gangs have gone so far as to abandon the illegal drug trade in favor of the more lucrative stolen electronics market.

According to OPD estimates, 75 percent of street robberies in Oakland now involve a cellphone. In San Francisco, nearly 50 percent of all robberies include a smartphone. And in New York City, smartphone thefts now account for more than 40 percent of all robberies (a 40 percent increase from 2011), inspiring the police force to coin the term "apple picking" to refer to iPhone theft. Consumer Reports estimated that 1.6 million Americans were victims of cellphone robbery last year.

In Oakland, city officials, including Kalb — who won election last November — have come under increasing criticism for not doing more to address crime. But many law enforcement experts say the most effective way to combat the robbery epidemic is by eliminating the incentive for thieves to steal smartphones in the first place.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have been arguing for more than a year that the number of robberies nationwide will plummet if smartphone manufacturers install so-called "kill switches" in their devices. These hardware fixes would render smartphones inoperable when stolen — and thus worthless. "I cannot over-emphasize that thousands of people are being affected by this," Gascón said of smartphone robberies. "There are homicides related to this."

Until recently, smartphone makers like Apple, Samsung, Google, and Microsoft resisted installing kill switches in their products. The companies declined to say why — but critics have noted that the stolen smartphone industry has been a financial windfall for these corporations. When a smartphone is stolen, the victim usually then buys a new device at a cost of $500 or more. Lookout, a smartphone security company, estimated that lost and stolen cellphones cost consumers $30 billion last year. The smartphone industry in its entirety is worth $69 billion, according to the International Data Corporation, a technology-focused research firm.

Over the past year, Gascón and Schneiderman have led a national campaign to raise awareness about the need for kill switches. They contend that the most effective solution would be a hardware switch that would be impossible to hack. "The reality behind a software application is that as soon as someone can hack through it, it's useless," Gascón said. "A hardware solution is part of the phone and cannot be easily hacked through, and although hardware isn't 100 percent hack-proof, it's much better and more secure. Even if you wipe the phone clean, it's secure."