Oakland CA Sept 16 2013 The black squad car sits silent, its mere presence intended to be enough to scare off anyone mulling a run up Sequoyah Road to loot a house or bust a car window.

Although it looks the part, the Ford Crown Victoria isn’t actually a police car, and the man behind the wheel is no cop. He’s one of dozens of private security officers hired by residents across Oakland to supplement – if not replace – a depleted, overwhelmed police force.

As burglaries, home invasions, carjackings and assaults creep into Oakland neighborhoods less accustomed to crime, residents have built fences, armed alarms and installed security cameras.

And now, in greater numbers, they’re hiring private security patrols.

“One night I was at home and the alarm came on and the dogs started barking like mad, and I called the police and I stayed on the phone with the operator – and it took them 20 minutes to come,” said Mary Graham, a retired Oakland high school teacher who lives in Sequoyah Hills, a secluded, woodsy neighborhood near the Oakland Zoo.

The racket of the alarm and dogs apparently discouraged the break-in, but Graham was shaken. “So I figured we better get (private security). They have this type of security in buildings. I don’t see why we shouldn’t have it in our neighborhood.”

Now, Graham and 45 of her neighbors each spend $20 a month to have private security officers patrol the streets of Sequoyah Hills.

Elizabeth Caprini, general manager of the security company patrolling the neighborhood, VMA Security Group, estimates that her company will be guarding 500 homes across Oakland by November.

“Homes are getting broken into, drug dealing and prostitution are taking place,” Caprini said. “All that people want is to be able to use our services to be their eyes and ears for them.”

Crime in the city has soared in recent years. Robberies are up 54 percent from 2011, according to police records, while burglaries have risen nearly 40 percent. Auto thefts have increased by 33 percent.

A group of residents on three blocks of the Oakmore neighborhood – just a block away from Mayor Jean Quan’s home – were the first to hire private security last year after a burglar tried to enter a home occupied by two children.

Their idea caught on.

Nate Cook, owner of the firm Intervention Group Security, said his officers now patrol 300 homes. That number will rise to 500 in October when the company starts patrolling the Parkridge neighborhood near Skyline High School.

In the last two years, Cook said, patrolling Oakland neighborhoods has become a larger part of his business. No other cities have entire neighborhoods that have hired his company, he said.

“I’m talking to people all the time (in Oakland) to see what we can do,” he said. “They call me all the time.”

The service isn’t limited to the affluent hills neighborhoods.

In middle-class Maxwell Park, just northwest of Mills College, 180 residents have banded together to hire a security guard to patrol their neighborhood for four hours a day, five days a week. He started Wednesday.

“It costs each of us about 50 cents a day,” said Jose Durado, chairman of the neighborhood council. “As we get 45 new households to join, we get an additional hour of security.”

The guard’s patrol car, Durado said, will be marked “Maxwell Park Security.”

“We’re hoping that we can act as an example,” Durado said. “We expect that there will be other neighborhoods around us that will say, ‘How did you guys do that?’ ”

The security companies are quick to say they aren’t replacement cops – they’re mostly there to scare thugs out of the neighborhood or to report suspicious activity.

But if pressed, Cook said, his officers – some of whom are armed – wouldn’t hesitate to detain someone until police arrived. As private guards, they can’t do more than make a citizen’s arrest – something Cook said his officers have not yet done.

“Sometimes OPD is able to do something,” Cook said. “Sometimes it is the luck of the draw.”

Oakland police appreciate the help, said Officer Johnna Watson, a police spokeswoman.

“We are all striving for the same goal, and that is reducing crime,” she said. “The security companies are an extra set of eyes that allow the community to be empowered.”

Putting more police on the streets is the city’s top priority, said Sean Maher, a spokesman for Quan. There are now 615 officers patrolling the city of roughly 400,000 people – down from a peak of 830 officers in January 2009, according to police records.

“When communities get organized and rally around a cause like public safety, it is incredibly effective,” Maher said. “It is unfortunate that people feel forced to do this. We want a fully staffed Police Department.”

Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum, a police think tank in Washington, D.C., said private security patrols are “a sign of the times.”

“Cities are cash-strapped, and they are finding it difficult to keep up with the costs of a municipal police force,” Wexler said. “And if you want more police, you really have to ask yourself this question: What are cities prepared to do?”

Still, Wexler said, private security companies are no substitute for a competent police force.

“When you are talking about municipal police, you are talking about public officials and holding them to a high standard,” he said. “If private security is involved, they should be held to an equally high standard.

“When there is an emergency kind of situation, there is nothing better than a good police officer, and there is nothing worse than a bad police officer,” Wexler said. “The same is true for private security.”

In Crown Ridge, a collection of homes near Merritt College with sweeping views of the Bay Area, 150 members of the neighborhood association started paying for private patrols in May.

Since then, there’s been hardly a whiff of crime, said Nancy Safford, a member of the association’s public safety committee.

“Both in terms of amounts and seriousness, (burglaries and break-ins) were escalating,” Safford said. “What we were observing was at least two to five cars a day drive through the neighborhood that we were fairly confident weren’t visiting the neighborhood, but were casing the neighborhood – and that has completely stopped.”

Safford, a retired mortgage banking executive, said the patrols have contributed to “a rebirth of our neighborhood.”

Crime “put fear in us,” she said. Now, she said, “families are out, kids are out, people are walking their dogs. We have a better sense of community and a feeling of peace, or calm, and security.”

One city councilwoman said all residents are entitled to such peace of mind, but that they shouldn’t have to hire security guards to achieve it.

“Oaklanders deserve more safety, and to the extent that citizens can generate it for themselves and their neighborhood, I applaud that effort,” said Councilwoman Libby Schaaf. “But it does not excuse the city for failing to provide the most basic element of government. It is not a substitute.”

View Source