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Oakland Neighbors Crowdfunding Private Security

BY Sam Roudman | Friday, October 4 2013

College Ave in Rockridge, Oakland; (c) David Corby 2006

Oakland California’s Rockridge neighborhood has generally been better known for its fresh pasta and pricey Craftsman homes than for brazen daylight robberies. But that changed last month when three men held up a line of drivers waiting at the Rockridge BART station to pick up passengers in order to use the carpool lane on their morning commute.

“The casual carpool line is sort of a sacred thing,” says Rockridge resident Steve, Kirsh, “they robbed 20 people and they kind of freaked out the community.”

What’s a violated yet technologically savvy community to do? In Rockridge, the answer has been to crowdfund private security services, with the aim of compensating for an understaffed police department in the city with the highest robbery rate in America. In the last few weeks three separate campaigns have been started on Crowdtilt in order to fund four months of private security patrols in three different section of Rockridge. Near $35,000 have been raised so far, and two of the three projects have raised enough funds to ensure they will move forward.

The campaigns illustrate the power of crowdfunding tools to propel civic action, but they also point to the potential of crowdfunding to increase urban inequality in the name of a civic virtue like neighborhood safety.

“Crowdfunding a solution for one neighborhood without working on the larger, underlying issues is concerning to me,” says internet scholar Ethan Zuckerman. Last year he wrote about the potential of civic crowdfunding in cash strapped cities to abet inequality and erode faith in government’s ability to provide public goods like police forces, or parks. In his piece he stated “Unless done very carefully, crowdfunding a city’s projects is likely to favor wealthy neighborhoods over poor ones.” In the case of Rockridge, where the median home price of late is almost a million dollars, it seems like the downside of Zuckerman’s prediction has come to pass. Still, he believes that there is potential for the program to benefit all of Oakland, assuming “hiring private security guards is part of a larger strategy to work with Oakland PD to increase funding for officers.” Right now, there's no such strategy in place.

“We shouldn’t have to do this,” says Steven Kirsh, who is running the last of the three Rockridge campaigns, “but we need to do this.” He doesn’t see the Oakland Police Department suddenly getting more resources, so in order to protect his belongings, family and property value, the $82 per household doesn’t seem like much to ask, for 12 hours of patrolling five days a week. For a four month trial it will work out to less than a dollar a day.

Krish is also hoping that the relative cheapness of private security in Rockridge might opens the door to “educate other people if they're not aware of this sort of model.”

Part of what has allowed these campaigns to gather steam are the mechanics of Crowdtilt, which in the words of spokesman Andy Lutz “makes it dead simple to pool funds for any purpose.” That could be beer money for a tailgate, funding for a mayoral campaign, or in Rockridge, a supplemental security force. Lutz sees the Rockridge campaigns not as a rejection of government, but as a community’s stopgap effort to protect itself.

“They know the government means the best, and will help when they can,” he says, “but in the meantime, they're taking matters into their own hands.”

Other civic crowdfunding platforms might not give the citizens of Rockridge that chance. “We would not allow this project to be posted,” says Jordan Raynor, co-founder of Citizinvestor. “We believe that local government entities are best qualified to make decisions for the good of all citizens,” and so projects on his site require that funds be raised on the behalf of a local government agency.

It’s not only Rockridge residents taking security into their own hands in Oakland. An article last month in the San Francisco Chronicle detailed an increase in Oakland residents relying on private security. The article points out that Oakland, a city with near 400,000 residents, had 830 officers patrolling the city in 2009, while today that number is down to 615.

This is not to say that private security for a public neighborhood has been an easy sell for Kirsh.

“There's an initial reaction of ‘Why do i have to pay a dime to do something the city should do?’ But,” he pauses, “welcome to America!”

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