The Thin Blue Privatized Line

Justin Berton | June 3, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Editor's Note: This is one of many dispatches from Oakland that San Francisco magazine is publishing over the next month, all part of our June "Oakland Issue." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

When Larry Ward and his buddy realized that they’d been spotted by a security guard during their alleged midday heist of an Oakland home, they did what burglars caught in the act might be expected to do: They dropped the loot and ran.

According to police reports and witness accounts, Ward and his accomplice abandoned the spoils—two flat-screen TVs, three guns, and a telescope—in the yard and sprinted for their getaway car, a Mercedes-Benz SUV. As Ward’s wheelman scrambled into the driver’s seat and punched the gas pedal, Ward lost his footing on the passenger side and tumbled onto the pavement. From the ground, the 18-year-old watched as his friend fishtailed away in the SUV, disappearing up a narrow residential street into the Oakland hills.

Picking himself up, Ward was approached by Rico Thomas, the 26-year-old security guard who had stumbled upon the break-in—and would soon draw a gun and shoot the suspect with it. Thomas had become a beloved fixture to the Upper Dimond and Oakmore residents who had hired him to patrol their streets months earlier. He would later tell police that his scrap with Ward happened in a flash: Ward lunged at him with an iron pry bar, he said, and tried to kill him. The two men wrestled, and then Ward ran away. But instead of heading downhill, the easier escape route, Ward ran uphill after the SUV, perhaps hoping that it would stop.

Ward started his trek up Harding Way with one hand gripping the front of his sagging black jeans and the other shielding his face, says neighbor Jennie Votel, who watched the fight and the flight unfold. When she shouted at Ward and extended her arms to confront him (her garage had been burgled weeks earlier, and she was riled with an Oaklander’s sense of “Oh, hell no!”), he brushed her aside and continued his crab-waddle up the hill.

“I wasn’t going to try and hold him down,” Votel tells me, “but I didn’t want him to get away, either. People have asked me if I was afraid he had a gun, but you could tell he didn’t have a gun. He was covering his face and looked ashamed. He said”—Votel whines in a childish voice—“‘I didn’t do anything, lady.’”

Thomas, meanwhile, ran downhill to his parked Corolla, called the Oakland police on his cell, and steered in pursuit of Ward, who had completed a 350-yard uphill run and arrived at a fork at Tiffin Road. Ward chose to go left, a fateful mistake if he wanted to catch a breather. At first Tiffin Road appears flat, but after a gentle curve, the street inclines like a roller coaster. After a staircase-steep block and another 350 yards, Ward was rewarded with a downhill outlet. He skittered down Waterhouse Road, but that’s where Thomas caught up with him. The security guard jumped out of the Corolla.

Witnesses have given police varying accounts of what happened next, all of which, according to Ward’s court-appointed attorney, will be aired at the pretrial hearing in May (after this issue has gone to press). Initial police reports allege that Ward pulled out a pry bar and made a threat on Thomas’s life. One neighbor tells me that Thomas, who said that he feared Ward was ready to bolt through a backyard and vanish, felt that he had to stop him.

At some point—possibly during their first tussle—Thomas sprayed the teenager with Mace or pepper spray. The irritant failed to subdue Ward, and Thomas later told neighbors that the wind blew the chemicals back into his own face. Whatever the chain of events, the encounter on Waterhouse Road ended with Thomas drawing a gun and shooting Ward in his upper left thigh.

Caria Tomczykowska pulled up to her home after an errand to the post office to find Ward lying at the foot of her driveway. From a distance she thought that Thomas was her gardener, sprinkling her lawn. Then she noticed the blood trickling toward the gutter.

Thomas, fatigued and flushed with adrenaline, was standing over Ward with a garden hose. Worried that his detainee would pass out before the police arrived, he squirted water into Ward’s face every few seconds to keep him conscious. Neighbors emerged from their homes and formed a semicircle around the two men. From across the street, Tomczykowska took cell phone photos of Ward, who wore the look of cornered prey, frozen in shock and dripping wet.

“Rico deserves a gift basket and a card,” Tomczykowska tells me a few weeks after the shooting. “Next time I see him, I’m going to give him a little gratuity so he can take himself out to dinner.”

Tomczykowska has lived in her home on Waterhouse Road for 42 years and was once the neighborhood association leader. Last fall, she gladly agreed to the $36 monthly fee to hire a company called Security Code 3 for a private patrol. When television trucks parked at her curb 15 minutes after the shooting, she told reporters that she was OK with the fact that Thomas had gunned down Ward and happy that the accused had been arrested. Her boyfriend, Robin Perry, went further. The Vietnam vet ignited the neighborhood online boards after he told a reporter that Ward was lucky he hadn’t been home. Perry said that he would have shot Ward dead.

If the decision to hire a private guard was meant to unify the neighborhood, the shooting had the opposite effect: It fractured it. Most neighbors supported Thomas’s actions. But a vocal minority that emerged in the days afterward thought that Thomas had gone too far.

“I still can’t understand why other people on the street feel bad about what happened,” Tomczykowska tells me. “This is what we paid for—to catch the bad guys and to send a message that they’re not welcome here. It was a fluke thing that just so happened on our street, and now it’s put a chill over the neighborhood.”

Oakland residents love to unpack a good sociological conundrum—more so when it weaves in crime, class, and race. But perhaps nothing has tangled their concerns like the rise of private security patrols. And it would be hard to find a knottier tangle than this: an African-American teenager from the flatlands running through a maze of $800,000 homes, only to be shot by a guard (also black) who was not supposed to be armed and whose vision was temporarily impaired by his own pepper spray.

On message boards and in conversations, Oakland residents debated a host of questions. Did Larry Ward deserve a bullet in the quad for allegedly stealing a couple of flat screens and long guns and trying to escape? Did Thomas’s bullet deliver a message to those who might follow in the suspect’s footsteps? Or might it provoke future burglars to carry guns, make them more trigger-happy, and make the neighborhood less safe? And who, if anyone, had blood on their hands? Thomas? The residents who hired him? Or the accused criminal himself?

Living in Oakland means accepting that the cops are too overburdened to protect and too undermanned to serve. With just 652 officers, the Oakland Police Department is understaffed by a staggering 200 to 250 officers. The city’s last three police chiefs, Sean Whent, Howard Jordan, and Anthony Batts, have all publicly conceded that their rank and file can do little but respond to high-priority 911 calls (such as murders, robberies, assaults, and rapes in progress). And it takes the OPD an average of 17 minutes to respond to those emergencies, more than double the average time in comparable California cities. But Oakland residents are hardwired with a DIY ethos, and the most engaged citizens have mobilized beyond the talk-centric Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils that rose from the crack-and-gang wars of the 1990s to handle neighborhood security. In this liberal city, with its deep skepticism of the police and Big Brother, a growing number of residents are paradoxically hiring proxy badges and planting license plate–reading cameras in their rosebushes.

“The thing that makes Oakland different,” UC Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring says, “is that this isn’t the extraordinarily wealthy or corporations purchasing security to protect their assets, as it is in other parts of the world or here in the U.S. This is regular citizens banding together to get basic security. It’s not frosting on the security cake; it’s baking a private layer of security into the cake—a layer that the state cannot provide because of diminished resources.”

No one can fault residents for looking beyond the police for security. Oakland has the highest violent crime rate in California. At 10.9 robberies per 1,000 residents, you’re more likely to get robbed here than in any other big city in America. And many of the robberies are in-your-face brazen. In September, three hooded men robbed a 20-person queue of casual carpoolers at gunpoint in Rockridge on a major street just before 9 a.m. In October, four armed men robbed a group of volunteer workers at a Habitat for Humanity construction site in East Oakland. One of the workers was pistol-whipped.

But despite these notorious examples, the Oakland police have admitted that they can do little to help. At a standing-room-only meeting at the Dimond Library six days after Ward’s shooting, interim assistant chief Paul Figueroa told neighbors that this year, the department was most focused on reducing shootings in the flatlands and would concentrate its resources there.

“It’s our theory,” Figueroa said to an audience that appeared to appreciate the logic, “that if we can reduce shootings overall, we’ll reduce homicides. The people who are shooting and committing violent crimes [in the flatlands] are the same ones willing to commit serious crime in your neighborhoods.”

But Oaklanders in various income brackets are not willing to wait for this trickle-down theory to work. What was once a luxury item for the million-dollar-view neighborhoods above Highway 13 has begun to spread across Oakland. In the past three years, residents have started to stitch together a series of private patrols—75, 100, 150 homes at a time. Abandoning traditional neighborhood association boundaries, they’ve bonded with anyone who’s willing to chip in to the kitty: a few streets this way, a few blocks that way. In April, neighbors in the hip Temescal district launched an online campaign to raise money to hire a patrol for an ambitiously large 1,000-home jurisdiction.

No one keeps official data on the number of guards and the precise borders of their territories. Nor is it known which neighborhoods deputize armed guards, although most guards are thought to be unarmed. But press reports and interviews with company owners indicate that private forces, working for at least six different companies, watch 2,500 to 3,500 homes, or about 2 percent of the city’s total of 161,000 homes.

The shift from affluent neighborhoods into moderate-income ones was illustrated in September when neighbors in Maxwell Park, a middle-class East Oakland neighborhood, hired a company to keep an eye on 300 homes. José Dorado, a tax preparer who helped organize the effort, tells me that residents there negotiated with competing companies for several months, until they won a contract that costs homeowners $15 a month—a bargain compared to the $50 to $75 that residents living near Skyline Boulevard have to shell out.

Bordered by Interstate 580 to the north and flanked by major thoroughfares on the west and east that lead to freeway entrances, Dorado’s neighborhood is a frequent site of break-ins, car thefts, and stolen-car dumps, partly due to the easy escape routes.

“Fifty cents a day,” Dorado says. “Isn’t feeling safer worth that much?”

The absence of police presence is so noteworthy that it can play like dark comedy. Last summer, Chronicle pop culture critic Peter Hartlaub (who once live-tweeted the discovery of his ransacked home) was among a group of neighbors who caught the aftermath when a getaway van full of burglars crashed into two parked cars. As neighbors dialed 911 and spat out suspect descriptions to dispatchers, the robbers jumped from their white van, worked together to dislodge it from the wreckage, and rolled it a block away on a flat tire before giving up on their lame vehicle and fleeing on foot. Neighbors, who took photos of the license plate and VIN number, waited at the crash scene with one strong lead: One of the suspects had dropped his halfway house report with his name printed on the top.

The cops never showed. Three hours later, however, the burglars returned. To the clicks of cell phone photos taken from a safe distance, the thieves jacked up the car, put on a spare tire, and drove away. At the four-hour mark, Hartlaub says, a police officer finally showed up. “It’s actually made our neighborhood a hell of a lot stronger,” Hartlaub says in a silver-lining kind of way. “And we look out for each other. I’m guessing it was that way in the Wild West, too.”

It’s the tragedies, however, that speak loudest to the reality of living in a police void. Last summer, Judy Salamon, a 66-year-old dog-sitter nicknamed the Pet Nanny, was murdered in broad daylight in Maxwell Park. Well known to her neighbors, Salamon was an advocate of patrols and had passed out flyers advertising a meeting on the plan to hire one days before her death. Up until then, liberal residents had been worried about hiring guards, wondering if they were adding to America’s culture of violence and opening the door to ugly George Zimmerman scenarios. “Whatever concerns they had about what more security would bring or ‘Will there be racial profiling?’ ended after Judy’s death,” Dorado says. “After that, there really wasn’t much discussion about whether this was a bad thing.”

Page two: Are Oaklanders sitting ducks for crime?

Lynn Nartsch owns a house on Waterhouse Road, the street where Thomas caught and shot Ward. She read the neighborhood discussion boards that applauded Thomas’s actions for nine days before she decided to post an opposing opinion. “I am loath to respond here, but I can’t help myself,” she began. “I feel like my minority opinion needs to be on record.”

Bartsch, an attorney and writer, lives with her husband and two children directly across the street from Tomczykowska and Perry. From her front door, she can see the bleach streaks left by firefighters who used the chemical to remove Ward’s blood from Tomczykowska’s driveway. When neighbors passed the cup to hire Security Code 3, Bartsch says, her family was initially attracted to the idea—their home had been burglarized two summers before while a friend slept upstairs.

But the attorney had misgivings about liability issues and believed that neighbors would be legally vulnerable if a crook shot a guard on their property (she hadn’t considered the possibility of the guard shooting the crook). She was also skeptical of the company’s promise to merely “observe and report,” aware that when you invite a badge of any shape into your backyard, potentially charged encounters with outlaws will follow. “Honestly,” Bartsch adds, “we also didn’t like the idea of meeting the increasing violence with potentially more violence.”

In Bartsch’s post to her neighbors, she wrote that she was saddened by the sometimes bloodthirsty tone on the discussion boards and in real-life conversations with neighbors. One resident on the community site Nextdoor had written of the burglars, “We have to speak their language—shoot to kill.” If the neighborhood cheered the shooting, Bartsch wrote, “then to me, we are just as big a set of thugs as the thieves. I’m not saying we let them run roughshod over our lives and take what they want. I’m saying we should follow the rule of law that is supposed to keep us civil, and detain and arrest without escalating beyond reasonable bounds. Would this guy have gotten away? Maybe. But then a neighbor would have lost some property and we’d have kept our dignity.”

Bartsch considered the what-ifs of a parent—what if Thomas had missed, hitting someone’s child? She also paraphrased her 11-year-old, who suggested that if everyone in the neighborhood took the money spent on security guards and put it into schools, perhaps the kids committing the crimes would have options other than stealing.

“Now, of course that’s a bit naïve, and the scale of the problem is bigger than that,” Bartsch tells me. “But I was very proud that she saw the kids who were stealing as people who needed options for productive and positive opportunities. A lot of my neighbors, the ones who were making the vicious comments, seemed not to value the lives of these people or see them as human at all.” She ended her post by writing, “I’m just sad about the whole thing and a little frightened of some of my neighbors now.”

A spirited exchange followed on the neighborhood discussion boards. One resident sarcastically said that the guard should have advised Ward to get counseling; another defended Bartsch, warning of the law of the jungle. Tomczykowska noted that Ward was out on bail for a felony robbery when he was shot by Thomas and referenced Bartsch’s kicker. “Out on $300,000 bail and prior arrests at 18 years old?” Tomczykowska wrote. “Don’t think he’s gotten the message. And to be scared of your neighbors? Really?”

The residents who posted generally supported Thomas—one called on neighbors to show up to his court dates if prosecutors took action against him—but few went as far as Perry, who said that he would have killed Ward. On the day that I visit him, Perry shakes his head at the memory of Bartsch’s manifesto. A third-generation Oaklander, Perry served in Vietnam with the navy and returned to the Town with a different philosophy on personal security than he’d had when he’d left. “You get used to providing security for yourself every day,” Perry tells me, “and it’s a lot to ask to hand it over to someone else to provide.”

After the television appearance during which he said that he would have killed Ward, Perry became the subject of a few posts on the discussion boards. “I think that’s sick,” one person wrote. “I think everyone,” wrote another, “would agree that the quote from the neighbor is extreme and should not be used to broadly paint the residents of the neighborhood.”

When I meet him, Perry is wearing Raiders sweatpants, slippers, a flannel shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest, and a gold Raiders watch. Unburdened by an ounce of self-doubt, he is the image of 1970s Oakland, an era of libertarian bad-assery that still shows up today in the city’s self-reliance backbone. “I was raised by very liberal parents and understand how people were upset by my words,” Perry says. “It’s not that there isn’t any compassion. It’s that some people”—Perry nods toward Bartsch’s home across the street—“don’t understand the reality of crime. If you don’t see it day to day to day, you think it can be handled in ways that it just can’t be handled.”

He characterizes his relationship with Bartsch before the shooting as “fine. We wouldn’t go out and get drinks, but we would say hi.” Now? “I don’t talk to them, they don’t talk to me,” Perry says with a wave of the hand. “They’re afraid of me for what I said. But what they don’t know is, I could save their life because I have the capacity.”

I ask Bartsch what impact the shooting and the heated online exchanges have had on her relationship with her neighbors. “I don’t think I know the answer to that question,” she says. “All I know is that I am now way more concerned about shootings happening in the street, when I used to find that pretty unimaginable. This is especially worrisome now that I realize how many of my neighbors seem to have guns and weapons in their homes and how willing they might be to use them.”

The full stakes of the debate over Thomas’s encounter with Ward became clear in late April. That’s when police announced the arrest of two men for the murder of Judy Salamon, the Pet Nanny. It turns out that Salamon, like Thomas, had decided to go beyond just observing and calling the police. Sergeant Mike Gantt, the lead investigator, says that Salamon caught the men engaged in a “street crime” and began video-recording them with her phone. When the men drove off, she followed them in her car. One of the suspects heaved a trash can at her Subaru and the other shot her dead. The men took her phone.

Gantt says that Salamon “was a brave lady” but that she should have called the police instead of tracking the two men. “We want residents to be vigilant,” Gantt says. “We don’t want them to be vigilantes.”

But the irony is clear. Salamon did the same thing that Rico Thomas did in pursuing Larry Ward. Only she ended up dead.

Most of the sound and fury in Oakland about the private security patrols has been ideological and abstract. Some critics wring their hands about “a police state without the police” and worry about the racial fault lines exposed by the patrols. But neither argument resonates with residents of all races who are fed up with being sitting ducks for burglary or worse.

For these Oaklanders, aside from the vexing question of whether the guards should be armed, effectiveness is the only real issue. Have private security guards lowered the crime rate in patrolled neighborhoods? It’s difficult to know for sure, but some evidence suggests that they have.

The official numbers on crime in Oakland are improving. So far in 2014, all crimes in Oakland are down from last year by 14 percent, according to OPD statistics. Residential burglaries decreased by an eye-opening 34 percent (930 compared with 1,400) from the same time in 2013.

At the Dimond Library meeting, a neighbor asked—pleaded with, really—Captain Ricardo Orozco to tell residents if they should pay for private patrols. The resident wanted to know if police attributed the dip in residential burglaries since 2012 to the guards. Orozco’s answer was appropriately noncommittal. “Extra eyes on the street are always good,” he said. “We always like it when neighbors come together.”

In Lower Rockridge, a neighborhood that uses patrols, resident Paul Liu, an economist at Google, conducted a three-month study in October 2013 in an attempt to figure out what the area’s crime rate would have been without security guards. Liu compared crime stats in his neighborhood with those in the nearby Temescal and Elmwood districts. While all three areas saw a dip, the crime rate in the patrolled Lower Rockridge swath was drastically lower. By Liu’s calculations, the private guards were responsible for a 46 percent reduction in crime overall.

To Liu, it seemed that the scarecrows worked. But did the criminals land in other neighborhoods instead? One of the critiques of security patrols is that they could simply drive crime further downhill, where residents can’t afford to hire security. Liu recently finished another study and concluded that crime in nearby neighborhoods did not increase significantly.

If the private patrols really are effective in reducing crime, there’s probably only one thing that will persuade residents to stop paying for them: a more effective police force. “Should OPD find a way to successfully recruit and retain officers at significantly higher levels than they are now,” Liu says, “I suspect folks will no longer feel the need for the patrols, and we would discontinue them.”

At an arraignment in February, Larry Ward stood ramrod straight in a canary-yellow jail suit and agreed to a pretrial hearing in May. He won’t be released anytime soon. Before he was jailed on charges of felony burglary and threatening Thomas’s life, he was out on bail after five felony counts from an October 2013 incident during which, police say, he robbed five people at gunpoint at a house party on Skyline Boulevard.

According to that complaint, Ward and two accomplices were arrested hours later while in a Burger King drive-through on International Boulevard. Ward was carrying a gun. Between the two cases, he’s facing three strikes. His visiting privileges were revoked at Santa Rita Jail, and he did not respond to letters.

Crime has continued in the Upper Dimond and Oakmore. Two weeks after the incident, a home a few blocks away on Lincoln Avenue was robbed and a residence one block north of Tomczykowska’s driveway was hit. Two garages a block off Waterhouse Road were burglarized within a month, and Perry tells me that a car in front of his home was broken into a week after the shooting. The “message” that some residents hoped criminals might receive has apparently not been delivered. (The Upper Dimond neighbors, however, did get a return from their surveillance network. Four suspects involved in the high-profile shooting of an 81-year-old woman during a home-invasion robbery two weeks before the Ward incident were arrested after cameras captured their faces and car make.)

After Ward was taken from her driveway on a gurney, Tomczykowska says, Thomas sat at the curb and asked for water and paper towels to wipe his brow. He was distraught. “He needed a few hugs,” she says. “He was out of it, as would anyone be in his position.”

Thomas declined to discuss the shooting through his manager at Security Code 3, Rich McDiarmid, and he’s since been transferred to another patrol beat within the company. “I didn’t want him being a sitting duck out there if Ward’s friends wanted revenge,” McDiarmid says. “I also don’t want residents throwing him a party and baking cakes.”

Thomas grew up in West Oakland. A standout football player at McClymonds High School, he was recruited by several colleges and played defensive back for one season at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Neighbors tell me that in the few months that he patrolled their streets, he blended into the community fabric. On foot patrols, he stopped to shoot hoops with Votel’s kids. He picked up newspapers for elderly residents at the bottom of their driveway and ran them up to the porch. He collected mail for vacationing neighbors. In return, they left cookies on his car and offered him bottles of water. They felt safer. They appreciated his presence.

So why did Thomas go beyond “observe and report” and chase Ward?

McDiarmid says that Thomas had a gun in the trunk of his Corolla because he was headed to a shooting range after work. When Thomas saw the stolen guns scattered in the yard, McDiarmid says, he feared that the burglars had other firearms and would use them. “These events happened boom, boom, boom,” McDiarmid says, “in a split second. Reactions come into play. Nobody wanted this to happen—especially Rico. He doesn’t even want to be a cop. But he had no choice.”

In fact, Thomas had a lot of choices to make and a lot of chances to opt out. Perhaps he chased Ward because he, like Votel—and Salamon—thought, “Oh, hell no!” After all, it’s his Oakland too.

Back on Waterhouse Road, the online debate faded. When Bartsch sent her email, she was aware of Ward’s criminal past and wrote, “Judging by this guy’s priors, he would’ve been caught another time.”

I ask her if she would have preferred to see a man who had allegedly committed an armed robbery get away and remain at large.

“Would I rather that Ward be on the street than potentially be shot dead over a property crime?” Bartsch asks. “Yes, I would. Would I rather Ward be on the street than have one of my kids get shot by accident when the guard misfires or in a potential crossfire? Yes, I would.

“Would I rather Ward be on the street than live in a world where we all lose our dignity and humaneness out of fear?”

“Yes, I would.”

Originally published in the June Issue of San Francisco.

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