Three Guys Step Up to Help Deter Crime

Saturday, November 9, 2013

All of us who have signed on to one of the private security patrols recently proposed for large areas of Rockridge fervently hope that it will help stem the muggings, robberies, burglaries and car thefts that have hit the area over the last year.

But no matter what, many feel we owe our thanks to Paul Liu, Steve Kirsh and David Groves, and those who have worked with them, for providing us with a plan of action and listening to our concerns along the way.

It was Liu, a straight-talking economist at Google, who started the ball rolling. "He's the godfather," says Kirsh, a business development director for a digital agency, who describes himself as a foodie and a drummer.

Before Rockridge News editor Don Kinkead and I sat down with them in early October, the two had not met.

"I don't think there was a specific crime," says Liu, that spurred him to start calling security firms a few days ahead of the brazen armed robbery at the casual carpool pickup at Claremont Avenue and Hudson Street. (The suspects were later apprehended.)

Rather, it was the rat-tat-tat of incidents highlighted by the robbery of students outside Oakland Tech and the more recent mugging of his neighbor that prompted him to start calling security firms, he says.

"In the past six months, the criminals have stepped it up - the kids at Oakland Tech, the carpool ...It's like they're saying you might as well mug eight or 10 people at a time," Liu says.

"I don't want to be a community organizer, an activist, or a politician," he says, rather emphatically. "I also didn't want to collect checks from people and then return them (if we didn't make our quota)."

So he trolled the Internet for a crowd-funding source "that focused on all or nothing." That turned out to be group funding platform Crowdtilt.com.

Kirsh and Groves didn't want to re-invent the wheel. They used Liu's model to inform their areas of Rockridge. That included using both the funding source and the security group, VMA, which he had vetted.

Liu had done his homework. He talked with Chris Jackson, operations manager for the Rockridge District Association (RDA), that uses the VMA Security Group to patrol businesses along College Avenue. He also checked with

OPD Capt. Anthony Toribio, commander of Area 2 which includes Rockridge, who says he has a good working relationship with VMA.

"I was looking for a security service that would give us some street presence," Liu says. "Our hope is that there will be a visual deterrent effect. If they come across incidents in progress, when perpetrators are faced with a security officer, that they will run."

As of the deadline for this column, approximately 20 percent of residents had signed up, more than $57,000 had been raised from more than 600 contributors and all three geographic areas were a go. "We're funded separately but we're all going to be in sync," Kirsh says. "VMA is going to have its officers collaborate."

Kirsh, Groves and Liu definitely fit Rockridge's family demographics - each is married with two young children.

For Liu, it was a choice of making a stand or moving away. "We had been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts," he says. "We picked Rockridge because we wanted that same feel - walkability, neighborliness, good transit. It's a unique combination. We like where we are."

Groves, a policy researcher with RAND Corporation, got involved "because we have too much to lose by doing nothing. We have a wonderful, diverse and walkable community. I believe that the recent crime spree is jeopardizing this. I consider myself an engaged community member."

I was impressed that Kirsh would take on the task of mobilizing his section of Rockridge even though, thus far, he is a renter. "We moved from Noe Valley," he says. "Rockridge is the perfect place. We're committed to the neighborhood. We're here to stay."

"I wouldn't say I'm an activist," Kirsh says. Instead, "I've been activated. Something picks you. This is a first step and a sensible approach. What we don't want to do is create a culture of fear."

Although their original plan included armed patrols, they heeded the concerns of those community members worried about adding more guns to the mix.

"We decided that it would be most appropriate at this time to try unarmed patrols, and while doing so assess if it meets our security needs," they explained in a recent e-mail.

So, starting this month, unarmed VMA personnel in cars marked with VMA logos will patrol our streets, and, for those who signed on, keep a watchful eye on our houses.

"Ninety-five percent of our staff lives in Oakland," says VMA general manager Elizabeth Caprini, who lives in the Oakland Hills. "It's important that the patrol officer know the area. We're out there to become part of the community.

"We don't profile anybody," she says, in response to some people's fears. "We're not out there to look for problems. We're there to prevent problems. We're all in this together."

The Rockridge area "is a relatively simple, small patrol," Caprini says, compared with the vast swath of her Oakland Hills area that signed on to have VMA patrol this past September. "I don't keep track of (crime) statistics, but it has brought a level of peace of mind."

However, Rockridge residents will want statistics. "I've told a few folks I will do what I can in terms of data," Liu says, during the four-month trial period. The hope, of course, is that it will be obvious from the police crime reports and from our own experiences.

None of the three regard this as a permanent solution. "This is a kind of Band-Aid on the whole societal question of how we can solve crime in this city as a whole," Liu says. "It's not about building a gate around Rockridge," Kirsh says. "I want to protect myself; but we need to find a way to have a bigger conversation."

Judy Berne welcomes your comments and column ideas. She can be reached at judyberne@att.net.