A Block Captain Explains How He Keeps His Oakland Neighborhood ‘Suburban Quiet’
When one hears the words “police” and “Oakland,” the first things to come to mind are probably the shooting of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer at the Fruitvale station or clashes between law enforcement and Occupy Oakland protesters.

For all the real tension between police and segments of the city’s population, there are few places like Oakland where there is such a range of community policing programs. In Oakland, the efforts operate at three distinct levels: the citywide Community Policing Advisory Board, the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council, and, at the block level, Neighborhood Watch, Merchant Watch, and National Night Out. If you want to have an impact on public safety and police and community relations in Oakland, there is no shortage of ways to participate, as my wife Patty and I have discovered over many years.

Patty and I are both graduates of the Oakland Citizens Police Academy. Patty is also a graduate of the academies of the City of Oakland, Alameda County, Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. All of these citizens’ academies are offered free of cost and offer a way to learn about how law enforcement agencies operate and how people can get involved to improve the quality of life in their communities.

As a block captain in my Fruitvale neighborhood, I organize collaboration between the Oakland Police Department and residents of our block to make it “suburban quiet.” By being more vigilant and working with the police, we’ve made progress: Drug dealing and open drug use has been sharply reduced, burglaries and car thefts have become rare, and children enjoy playing outdoors now. By coming together and getting involved, my neighbors and I even got a problem property at the end of our block cleaned up. It was originally a hotel in Oakland’s early days but fell into disrepair and changed hands often. It housed individuals with serious mental issues but offered them no services. Then it was a $10 a night per room drug den, followed by a micro-business incubator venture that failed. Today the building is a well-run boarding house and its management works collaboratively with neighbors.

Patty and I also host our block’s annual National Night Out party. The idea is to bring our neighbors together for good food, music, and games for the kids. It’s also a crime prevention event, so there are demonstrations and visits from elected officials and their staff, and representatives from the police and fire departments. The arrival of the fire truck is exciting for the children, who get to climb aboard and take pictures with firefighters.

In 2014, there were 625 National Night Out parties across the city of Oakland. For the party on our Fruitvale block, Patty and I maintain a reserve of tables and chairs to use for the event, work with neighbors to identify the best places for the cooking stations, set up blankets on the grass with toys for the small children, and block off the street for the party. Given that our block is diverse (like most of Oakland), the potluck food includes hot dogs and hamburgers, pupusas and curtido, tamales, fried chicken, and a variety of salads and fruit plates.

Then there are the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils (NCPC), which are organized by police beat and are the nexus for solving long-term, neighborhood crime issues, like drug dealing and robberies near an abandoned property, for example. For the past two years, I’ve served as chairperson of the council in our neighborhood beat; Patty served as chairperson for five years prior to my tenure.

A NCPC meeting usually includes three key people: a representative from the city council’s office and two people assigned by the police department. The neighborhood services coordinator is a civilian employee of the police department who “coordinates and provides crime prevention services and resources; develops and strengthens leadership skills of community members; facilitates resolution of neighborhood issues,” according to the City of Oakland website. The problem solving officer is a sworn officer who monitors and reports crime to the NCPC and works on specific issues identified by the council.

The monthly meetings are open to residents of that area—and are usually attended by people who fit into one of three groups: regulars, members of a neighborhood group who bring a specific problem to the council and stop attending once it is resolved, and those who are interested but only attend a few times.

The council’s impact can range from a reduction in street robberies or liquor stores in a certain neighborhood to attendees learning about “See-Click-Fix,” a smartphone app that enables citizens to report blight issues directly to the city’s Public Works Department.

The council is a good way for people to connect with the city—to learn what department to contact for various issues. It also connects people to their neighborhood and helps them see what folks on nearby blocks are dealing with and how they can work together on shared problems. Working with members of the police department is also helpful—as one of my neighbors said at a recent meeting: “We can see that police officers are people and they can see us as people.”

I bring a unique perspective to my involvement in the community. My social engagement in social justice issues began in high school through my participation in the Chicano movement, when I got the school district to remove scab grapes from the school lunch menu and organized students to participate in Chicano Walkout Day. All during this time, I was a sergeant in the Police Explorer program of the Fremont Police Department. In other words, I tend to be able to see both sides of the community-police issues.

I’m motivated to continue my involvement in programs and activities to help improve the lives of Oakland citizens by my commitment to social justice and my Christian faith. As a faith-based person, it’s important to perform acts of service. Finding time for volunteer work can be challenging at times, but since Patty and I are equally engaged in community service, we make it a priority. We definitely find all that we do to be very rewarding.

From my perspective, if the Occupy Oakland folks were really committed to civil disobedience (in the mode of Thoreau), they should plant their tent cities in wealthy neighborhoods and engage in their marches and blockades at the homes of the very rich, instead of in the middle of a cash-strapped, resource-stretched city like Oakland. That said, it is clear at our council meetings that the participants are everyday residents of Oakland who are committed to making their neighborhoods safer. This includes keeping a log of calls to the police regarding crimes on their block, attending meetings of the council, and speaking at City Council meetings regarding issues affecting their neighborhoods.

The collaboration and mutual support between the community and the Oakland Police Department at the heart of our work is having a positive impact on police-community relations and is a model for other efforts within the city of Oakland.

Abraham Ruelas is dean of campus programs and chair of the psychology department at Patten University. He writes on gender issues and is the author of two books on Christian women in higher education. A book he co-authored on the female seminary movement of the 1800s was published in 2015.

*Photo courtesy of Eric Fredericks.