Surveillance cameras in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Last week, Oakland officials announced a more aggressive plan to catch and punish people who illegally dump items on city streets. At the intersection of 21st Avenue and Solano Way in the San Antonio neighborhood, officials unveiled a new camera system, one of 10 new locations across the city. 

The city is not disclosing the other nine locations in the hopes that new technology—which can send video of illegal dumping to the cell phones of public works enforcement officers—and the fact that would-be litterers don’t know where the cameras are located will lead to both more successful prosecution and less dumping overall. 

Certain areas of Oakland have long been a regional dumping ground, including by people who live outside city limits and others wanting to avoid paying to dispose of items at the Davis Street dump in San Leandro, the closest landfill that everyday residents can legally use.

Public Works Director G. Harold Duffey said that 7,470 tons of trash, or about 15 million pounds, were picked up off the street last year. That’s about 37 pounds for every Oakland resident, he said. 

“We have one simple message I want the public to know,” Duffey said at a press conference. “We are telling illegal dumpers to simply stop it. Stop it now. To the residents hiring people with boards on the side of their trucks who will haul away anything: that stuff is coming directly onto the city streets.” 

Over the past 20 years, the city has attempted to combat this constant blight problem, which has only gotten worse over time. A litter-enforcement program also involving surveillance cameras launched in 2001 but folded in 2011 when funding was pulled and the cameras were removed. 

In 2016, four camera systems were placed at three locations—in West Oakland, deep East Oakland, and in the Lower Dimond neighborhood near Interstate 580. The program saw limited success and ran into technical difficulty, and drew concerns over the privacy of people living near the cameras. Meanwhile, dumping across the city has increased by 67% since 2017.

An inexpensive fix for an expensive problem?

During the 2021-2022 fiscal year, the city spent $12 million on illegal dumping cleanup. Cameras come much cheaper than deploying workers. According to a report Duffey issued last month, prices range from $5,495 to $7,995. 

According to the Public Works Department, the 10 new cameras are capable of providing high-quality footage to help identify illegal dumpers and build evidence to prosecute them. The devices were vetted by Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission, a civilian panel responsible for advising the city and City Council on the impacts of technology the city intends to use, and meet the city’s Surveillance Technology Ordinance, which ensures protection of civil liberties and that data collected by the city are secured. 

The cameras are not equipped to record audio, public works spokesman Sean Maher said. Video footage will be retained for 14 days, he added. 

A team of six civilian environmental-enforcement officers will be working with the Oakland Police Department and Alameda County District Attorney’s Office to cite and prosecute violators. Although Duffey would not say where the cameras are being placed, Maher said they are located in chronic dumping hotspots. Sites were also identified in accordance with the City Council’s priority to invest in traditionally underserved and racially marginalized neighborhoods.

Fines for violating the city code on dumping are capped at $1,000, a cap that dates back to 1968. Mayor Libby Schaaf, who attended the Friday press conference, said she supports increasing the fine. Schaaf called the cameras a “new tool in the city’s toolbox” to combat blight. 

“Everyone deserves to live in a clean, beautiful city, and especially our beloved children. Every child should walk through their neighborhood, walk to school, feeling honored, feeling safe. That cannot happen with the level of illegal dumping we have seen in this city,” Schaaf said. “The increase of trash on our streets—and I’m not talking about gum wrappers, I am talking about mountains of illegally dumped debris—this is something we are not tolerating.”

Besides enforcement, the city has found ways to make it easier for residents to get rid of large household items. In November, the city’s garbage collector, Waste Management, expanded services to allow residents to schedule appointments to drop off “bulky items” for free at the Davis Street landfill and changed rules for curbside pickup. Residents are now able to schedule a pickup without having to go through the building owner or property manager. 

More than 800 customers have used the free self-haul option since the program began, Waste Management spokesman Paul Rosynsky said. And the number of people using the curbside option increased 47% in January compared to the same month last year. 

G. Harold Duffey, Director Of Public Works at City of Oakland, holds up a cell phone representing that camera feeds are accessible by mobile phone to officials. Credit: Amir Aziz

Some neighborhoods see much more dumping

Dumping has gotten so bad in parts of East Oakland, Councilmember Noel Gallo said, that out-of-town friends and family who visit him have started calling the city “Trashland.” Gallo leads a group of volunteers every weekend to collect trash in his Fruitvale district. He said he’s assigned two of his staff members to pick up debris daily. The amount of garbage, he said, has hurt the city’s chances of attracting businesses. And the Oakland native said it wasn’t always this way.

“I grew up in Oakland. We were used to the violence in the community but I never saw a piece of trash in the neighborhood,” Gallo said Friday. “The reality is for Oakland to make progress in the future, to attract businesses, to attract customers, to attract students to our schools. We have to have a safe, clean, and healthy environment.” 

Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said the issue is prevalent throughout Oakland but hits lower-income neighborhoods harder. Schools, parks, and business corridors have all been targets. 

“I have joined town halls where literally hundreds of Oaklanders have come together to demand an end to illegal dumping,” Bas said Friday. “I am so proud that because of our advocacy we have been able to restore illegal dumping crews. We have been able to add environmental enforcement officers.” 

Friday’s press conference took place outside Community School For Creative Education in the San Antonio neighborhood. The Solano Way alley that runs behind the school and near the playground is a favorite location for illegal dumpers. Fifth-grader Paige Saechao Din said the trash is harmful to her school environment. “We can clean together and work together,” Paige said. “Work together to make Oakland better.”

David DeBolt reported on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.