At the height of the evening, there were dozens of Piedmont residents telling the City Council on Monday night that they had been victims of crimes, or seen them happen in front of their homes. Others said they were wondering whether Piedmont was the safe place they always thought — or hoped — it would be.
Police Chief Jeremy Bowers said it pained him to hear it all.
“It’s heartbreaking to see members of our community who are scared,” said Bowers near the end of Monday night’s council meeting where the main event was a summary of major crimes – “Part One” crimes, as defined by, and reportable to, the FBI.
The numbers for most of those crime categories in the second quarter of 2023 (ending June 30) over the same three months of last year were up – fairly dramatically in some cases. Burglaries increased from 14 in 2022 to 22 in 2023; thefts/larcenies increased from 124 in 2022 to 162 in 2023. And motor vehicle theft, which dipped to 18 in 2022, was at 35 for the second quarter 2023 – almost double.
The numbers were bad enough, but it was the brazenness of many of the recent crimes that had some residents more worried. And council members said they’ve been hearing concern about it from residents for the past several weeks.
There have been several notable incidents not captured in the quarterly report. In addition to a Sept. 10 carjacking on Grand Avenue, the most recent incident was reported about 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 13, when a man and woman were knocked to the ground in the Community Center parking lot; the woman’s purse and phone were taken. Eight days earlier, an armed robbery of construction tools occurred in the 200 block of Estates Drive.
At about 7 p.m. on Aug. 11, police received a report of a 74-year-old man being followed on Scenic Avenue by two vehicles; four men jumped out of them to attack the man, pushing him to the ground and taking his watch. A short time later, police received reports of two similar vehicles speeding on Highland and Moraga avenues.
“We need to get out of this ‘doom loop’ of people committing these crimes,” said Yousuf Baijhee, who told the council that a lack of consequences appears to be a factor in their reoccurance.
Bowers told the council he has some suggestions for fighting the recent spike in crime, which he has characterized as “spillover” from Oakland, which completely surrounds Piedmont. Among his proposals to help Piedmont get tougher on crime are:
- Get already planned Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) cameras in place, which should happen this week, and expand the city’s ALPR cameras and Public Safety Camera programs. The number of “ALPR incidents,” when a Piedmont camera is triggered by a license plate reported to police as stolen or otherwise involved in a crime, is on the rise. In 2023, there already have been more than twice as many such hits than there were in all of 2022, Bowers said. (In 2022 there were 287 hits compared to 614 in 2023. Bowers said the increase was due to both an increase in camera locations and increased activity.)
- Train officers to better monitor cars that activate the ALPRs with “covert capability” surveillance, which would involve more monitoring of vehicles that register a hit on those cameras.
- Hire an additional police dispatcher.
- Turn two Piedmont animal control officer positions into two police community service officers.
Bowers also told Council members that he’s been tracking “failures to yield” statistics; i.e., the number of times a car identified either via an ALPR hit or a vehicle violation evades police. He said he considers this a possible way to measure the prohibitive effects that ALPRs have had on preventing crimes.
In 2021, the first year of tracking, police identified 72 incidents; in 2022 that number went up to 145. In the first two quarters of 2023 Bowers said that number has risen to 210. “That’s a lot of people taking off from us,” he said. “And we’re only halfway through the year.”
Residents who attended Monday’s council meeting said those measures were all well and good, but that they need to go farther. Danielle Hilton (a former Alameda County prosecutor who now works for the San Francisco District Attorney’s office) said Piedmont might benefit from a “whole new vision” for fighting crime, and not just adjustments to the old methods.
Several residents called on the city to revisit the police department’s pursuit policy dictating how and when officers can engage in a car chase with a suspect. While some of them suggested a tougher policy may discourage some thieves from targeting Piedmont, Bowers said he doesn’t favor any changes, for various safety and manpower resource reasons.
Council members, including Betsy Smegal Anderson, said a prospective parcel tax measure could be expanded to include funding for additional police officers and equipment. That could be on a ballot as early as March.
“It seems like the community wants to support you financially,” Councilwoman Conna McCarthy said.
Others, including Andy Wasserman, a 44-year resident of Piedmont, told the council they need to make public safety the city’s number one funding priority. “If we can spend $20 million on a swimming pool, we can spend more on public safety.”
Bowers also showed Piedmont crime stats from 2007 to the present, and most crimes exhibited an ebb and flow over time. Among the points he and others said should be considered are whether the recent uptick in crime is simply part of that natural flow, or whether it represents a “new normal.”
Councilwoman Jennifer Long asked Bowers directly what funding the council could provide right now to help him fight crime. Bowers said paying for more cameras would be a fine start. Other measures, council members said, will likely be on city council agendas in the near future.
Other measures were thrown out there, too. There was a suggestion that the council enact an “emergency budget resolution” to make sure the city has three officers and a beat commander on shift at all times. McCarthy asked Bowers whether declaring a state of emergency would be of any use. The chief said he was “unaware of what that might trigger,” and that his department still provides excellent basic services – and superlative response times.
That last point was driven home by several residents even as they were telling the City Council how unsafe they feel. Several speakers went out of their way to stress that Piedmont police had always responded almost instantaneously to their calls.
This conversation will continue at a community town hall on public safety on Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 5:30 p.m. at the Community Hall, 711 Highland Ave.
Contact Sam Richards at email@example.com
On Tuesday, the Police Department posted on social media that the first of five new traffic cameras has been installed, at the intersection of Highland and Moraga avenues.
Work is expected to continue for the next several weeks as we install hardware and get each location configured and online. We want to thank the community for their patience as we’ve worked through our share of infrastructure delays with this project.