One of four pairs of surveillance cameras recently installed on Lakeshore Avenue. The cameras turned out to be fake. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

On April 6, 33-year-old Devon Stanford and his girlfriend were on an evening walk at Lake Merritt when they were robbed. In the heat of the confrontation, Stanford was shot, likely by one of the robbers. He died later at a hospital.

Known as “the cul de sac,” the roughly quarter-mile span of Lakeshore Avenue along which Stanford was killed begins where Lakeshore splits from 1st Avenue at Pittman Green and ends at the iconic 1200 Lakeshore Avenue building. The road has stunning waterfront views and ample parking next to a lakeside path and park benches. Created in 2012 when the city realigned several roadways, the street has become a popular hangout. 

But in recent years, the area has seen an uptick in violence. 

Between 2017 and 2019 there was one shooting in the area, an incident in which no one lost their life. Over the past two years, there have been four gun homicides, including Stanford’s—an unusual concentration of violence on one dead-end street. Three of these homicides happened in just the past five months, and there have been eight more non-fatal shootings in the same area over the past year.

Lakeshore Avenue residents are increasingly concerned for their safety.

Michael Chesher, who lives along the cul-de-sac, said he was in his apartment when he heard a commotion outside on April 6. He looked out the window and saw police and paramedics responding to the most recent shooting. The level of violence on the block has his family thinking of leaving.

“It’s crazy. We moved in in September,” he said. “The idea there’s been three murders since, on like one block, it doesn’t make you feel good to live here.”

Last year, some neighbors started a petition calling for more police enforcement on the street. OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong recently met with neighbors over Zoom about safety concerns.

And following one recent shooting, someone took matters into their own hands by installing eight surveillance cameras on four city-owned streetlight poles. The cameras had prime views of the parking areas and sidewalks. But the surveillance system has been something of a mystery: the cameras weren’t installed by the city, and officials don’t know who put them there. 

Calls for increased safety

A memorial and sign for Devon Stanford, who was killed in front of the 1200 Lakeshore Avenue building earlier this month during a robbery. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

The cameras appeared amidst an outcry from residents for the city and OPD to do more to prevent violence on the block. They also came as some residents and businesses in other parts of Oakland are pushing for their own arrays of cameras. A proposal to use city funds to pay for cameras in East Oakland is scheduled to be heard by the Oakland Privacy Commission soon. And San Leandro plans to install 41 surveillance cameras downtown and in other parts of the city.

Some researchers have found that cameras can reduce crime, while others have shown them to be ineffective. There’s also the tradeoff between the desire for security and the potential that surveillance can be abused by police or others.

Assistant City Administrator Joe DeVries told The Oaklandside that the city became aware of the unauthorized Lake Merritt cameras recently and decided that they would have to be removed because they were illegally installed on city property.

Under Oakland’s Surveillance Ordinance, a law approved in 2018 to balance civil liberties with new technologies, any surveillance device installed on city property needs to be evaluated first for its potential impacts. If its benefits for reducing or solving crime, or other purposes, don’t clearly outweigh its potentially harmful impacts, it can be rejected by the City Council.

The surveillance cameras set up on Lakeshore never underwent this process.

“We did not find out who installed them and we had not been offered data access to anyone that I know of when I checked with OPD,” said DeVries. “We did request that OakDOT create a work order for staff to take the cameras down since they are not authorized and affixed to a City asset.”

Late last week, the cameras were taken down by a city crew.

No one has stepped forward to claim them, said DeVries.

The owners of several buildings on the street did not respond to phone calls from The Oaklandside asking about recent safety concerns and the cameras.

Bogus cameras, real concerns

On Monday, DeVries told The Oaklanside there was one more twist to the story. 

The cameras, it turns out, were fake. They were elaborately installed to appear to be wired into the street lights’ electrical sources, and some even had blinking red lights in them. None were recording footage.

But according to court records, other surveillance cameras nearby have captured video of recent shootings by Lake Merritt.

Devani Aleman-Sanchez, 22, was shot and killed by two men on Nov. 11 on the 1400 block of Lakeshore, not far from the cul de sac. OPD says surveillance footage from unidentified cameras on the street identified two men armed with guns committing the robbery, according to court filings. OPD arrested an Alameda man and a man from Stockton and they have been charged with Aleman-Sanchez’s murder.

The Oakland Police Department told The Oaklandside they believe the area has seen an uptick in violence because it’s a scenic hang out where people like to party in the evening, but it’s also a place “where individuals can observe police driving in, making it challenging for police to enforce [against] illegal activity.”

According to OPD and residents, a recent decision by the city to eliminate overnight parking in the dozens of parking spots on the lake-side of the street might have inadvertently led to more people gathering. Lakeshore Avenue residents used to take up many of the parking spots at night, making it difficult for others to find places to stop and party. With so many new spots, larger groups of people have gathered to relax at the lake, and they’ve potentially been targeted for robberies. 

Whether fake cameras or real cameras are part of the solution, OPD, residents, and the area’s council member, Nikki Fortunato Bas, all say there are other strategies that might help reduce the violence on Lakeshore Avenue.

Councilmember Bas told The Oaklandside that new residential parking permits for the area could also help fill up the parking spaces late at night, preventing crowds from gathering and becoming targets of violent crime. And her office has requested more help from OPD. “OPD has made an active effort to patrol this area of the Lake and to investigate crimes and make arrests after tragic incidents of violence,” said Bas.

DeVries said that the city will give the cameras back to their owner, if they step forward. In the meantime, the city has no plans to install surveillance cameras on the street.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.