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Oakland's Auto Theft Syndrome

By Jim Forsyth

Note: This essay is taken from a discussion on a neighborhood email group.

Last year 8,821 vehicles were stolen in Oakland. That's more than 24 vehicles per day, or 169 per week. An 80% recovery rate does offer some solace, but even that is shaded by factoring in the condition of the recovered cars. Cars come back wrecked, stripped, and at a minimum, mechanically abused.

Although locking your car and using "The Club," a kill switch, and your garage can reduce the probability of your car being stolen, it will not necessarily reduce the total number of cars stolen.

I suspect that in Oakland car theft is given a very low enforcement priority, the officer staffing for that section of the police department is extremely small, and the courts are still using the punishment level so aptly described to me by an Oakland officer five years ago, "We don't actively pursue car theft, because the thief can be caught in the car and he can readily admit he stole it and has been using it for a month, but unless he actually spits in the DA's eye – or it was the DA's car – it will be pled down to 'joyriding' and he will walk."

Burgeoning car theft is also a result of the prevailing Oakland political crime philosophy that property crimes like residential burglary and car theft are of lesser importance because they are often covered by insurance. That's flawed elitist think. Most Oaklanders on the lower end of the economic scale don't have theft coverage. Even if insured, some costs of auto theft are not covered, like hidden mechanical abuse damage, rental cars, deductible allowances, time lost from work while trying to arrange interim transportation, and time and money spent looking for a replacement for a car that was not recovered.

The costs of kill switches, alarms, garages, and higher insurance rates are just one of the informal taxes Oaklanders pay for having a city government that fights crime with lip service, do-it-yourself remedies, and continually postponed promises.

A prime example of the cock-a-mamie DIY solutions was a councilmember's advice to L-- C-- that she "drive around" and look for her husband's stolen car, since 80% are found within a mile of home within one week. First, finding one's own stolen car could also come with some personal peril, particularly if one finds it parked in front of the thief's house.

Second, this advice is premised on the elitist assumption that all car theft victims have access to a second car and the $3.20 per gallon for gas to run it.

If all 169 owners who lose a car each week in Oakland followed the councilmember's advice, we would have 169 more cars circling aimlessly each day in the city. How would the councilmember reconcile the increased air pollution, traffic congestion, and fossil fuel consumption with Oakland's vaunted image as a green, self-sustaining city?

PS: Just as I finished the above, J-- A-- reported the recovery of his car and his payment of $135 in towing and storage. While James said the charge wasn't "so bad" and he appreciated OPD's service, it needs to be realized that the charge is "so bad" for many low income car theft victims. Of course, we all appreciate OPD's service, but we already pay for that in our property taxes, augmented by the esteemed Measure Y parcel tax that has yet to yield a net increase of one police officer.

Someone needs to ask why it costs more to store a recovered car on an uncovered gravel lot in an industrial redevelopment area than it does to stay at a Hampton Inn in a nice part of most cities with breakfast and off-street parking thrown in.

The Oakland Tribune and other sources have long pointed out that storage charges are too high because the city has bestowed a monopoly franchise upon A & B towing, which in turn seems to bestow generous and regular campaign donations upon elected officials. In some cities, this would be regarded as untoward behavior – but in Oakland, it's "business as usual."

I'm getting overheated now. I must sign off, put on my rose-tinted Oakland glasses, and calm down. That's better now. I can see City Hall, and it's all calm and warm and inclusive, and the mayor, the council, and the ethics commission are all nodding and telling me I'm getting very sleepy . . . zzzzzzzzzz


– June 2, 2006



We Can Really Relate to This

My husband and I can really relate. We live on East 23rd St. A big part of our yard runs along the street, and I can't tell you how many stolen cars we find here every year.

When we first moved in, we were just amazed at the sheer number of cars. Now we just call the cops and demand that someone run the license plate number. Once the police know the car has been stolen, they respond much more quickly. It is pretty easy to tell which cars have been stolen: they show up in the middle of the night, and they are usually in bad condition.

One evening a couple years ago, a young man ran up while the police were making their report on yet another stolen car by my house. He approached me and asked if I was the one who had called the police. Knowing that being a responsible adult can get you beat up or worse in Oakland, I just started to walk up to my house, but he stopped me by saying, "If you are the one who called, I want to thank you very much."

I stopped, and we spoke at some length. His car had been stolen over a week ago. He had only this one car while he raised two small children, worked, and went to school. Having his car stolen had put a severe strain on him and his family. The car was found in terrible condition. I felt awful for this poor man. Just think how many times something just like this happens in Oakland every year.

To think that a city councilmember would tell this young man that he should go out and drive around and look for his stolen car is obscene. We have to change this attitude that Oakland residents don't "pay" for crimes against their property. We pay a heavy price and we shouldn't have to.

Oakland is a strange place, like one of those old "Wild West" towns with no sheriff and too many outlaws. We wonder if law and order will ever come to Oakland.

– Mary B. and Robert K.

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