Right to left: Attorney General Rob Bonta, OPD Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, and councilmembers Sheng Thao and Noel Gallo field questions from business owners about public safety in their neighborhoods. Credit: Ricky Rodas

On Wednesday, about 30 business owners gathered at the Dimond Branch of the Oakland Library to share concerns about public safety with local officials. Attorney General Rob Bonta, OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong, and councilmembers Sheng Thao and Noel Gallo fielded questions from merchants in attendance. 

This was the latest attempt to organize shop owners from three commercial 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 Councilmember Gallo’s staff.

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

The conversation was born out of business owners’ concerns about the rising rate of violent crimes, including shootings and homicides. Ahead of the meeting, the Laurel District Association sent out an online business assessment survey to business owners in its area to get a sense of the challenges shop owners are facing. More than 200 individuals responded to the survey, and the top concern was crime. Business owners and others said they’re increasingly concerned about robberies, car break-ins, and generally feeling unsafe while walking in these commercial districts at night.

According to Oakland police data, violent crime is definitely on the rise. However, property crimes haven’t significantly increased in recent years. Residential and auto burglaries declined by 31% and 10% last year, respectively. Burglaries of businesses haven’t significantly increased over the past three years. Rapes declined 25% last year compared to the three-year average.

Still, the perception is that many Oakland neighborhoods are unsafe because of the spike in violent gun crimes. And property crimes are still a major problem, despite recent dips.

“People get more responsive when they know they’re being heard,” Swafford told The Oaklandside, who moderated the discussion. He believes that having Bonta and Armstrong on the panel generated more interest from the merchant community.

Questions on OPD budget and resources

Business owners questioned elected officials at the meeting about what they’re doing to improve public safety at a neighborhood level. Jose Dorado, the owner of Dorado Tax & Bookkeeping Services on Fruitvale Avenue, who also served on the Police Commission, wondered why there aren’t more Community Resource Officers assigned to the surrounding area. “Community policing is key here,” the Fruitvale native said. 

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

In fact, the City Council increased the Oakland Police Department’s budget by $38.5 million for fiscal years 2021-2023 to a total of $674 million. The City Council also recently approved funding for two new police academies and hiring a recruitment firm to help fill a sizable gap in vacant officer positions. 

But Armstrong and some other city officials contend that OPD remains under-funded compared to the overall public safety needs the city has. OPD currently is budgeted to have 737 officers, but the actual number fluctuates because of retirements, officers quitting, and terminations. In December, OPD had 677 officers, fewer than many experts say is needed to adequately patrol the city.

Tony Duncan, whose family owns the 2101 Club in Dimond and the Laurel Lounge in Laurel, wants to know what’s being done to curb sideshow activity and speeding on MacArthur Boulevard; both of his businesses are located on that street. “Three years ago, the Laurel Lounge was hit [by a car] and we were closed down for a couple days, so we want to know what we can do,” Duncan said. 

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

Rob Bonta, who was previously California’s 18th district assemblymember representing Oakland, was asked how Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Real Public Safety Plan is being implemented at a local level. The initiative, which was announced last December, aims to curb crime in the state by providing $255 million in grants to local law enforcement, and grant relief for small businesses that have been burglarized. 

Bonta began his response by speaking broadly about the need for public safety. “We need to do everything in our power to hold people accountable when they violate the law, and we also need to address root causes so we don’t have recidivism,” Bonta said. He went on to generally address the work that local enforcement agencies like Oakland have undertaken to curb criminal activity, such as suppressing human trafficking and busting groups involved with selling illegal firearms. Bonta also mentioned that funding relief will be available for small businesses that have experienced retail theft.

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

“It can be a real struggle for business owners to see their needs reflected on a citywide level because they’re so busy and don’t have the time to go to a six-hour meeting or go at it with a department head,” Swafford said. 

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.