It was early in March. A gorgeous, sunny Sunday, and scores of people had come out to Lake Merritt. They were riding bikes, roller-skating, enjoying picnics on blankets spread out on the grass. Oakland's characteristic diversity was on full display.
The morning newspaper had featured a story about how the fear of crime in Oakland had reached unprecedented levels as the city struggled with a soaring crime rate and a severely understaffed police force. Looking at the scene at the lake, the newspaper story seemed completely wrong. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. There was no sense of fear or apprehension. The story must have been about another city.
Then, Oaklanders often have the sense the news reports about Oakland are about someplace else.
Of course, on that gorgeous day and even this Sunday, both realities were true. Crime is a major concern and the city is a delightful place to live. That duality is difficult for news stories that tend to simplify issues and highlight the negative.
In addition, high-profile crimes add to the sense of danger. The killings of an 8-year-old girl at a sleepover and a 1-year-old boy asleep next to his father are so horrific they create a heightened sense of danger. This past week, a 92-year-old woman taking a morning walk was robbed when a car drove up, someone jumped out and grabbed her coin purse. Thankfully, she wasn't physically injured, but her, and our, sense of security is shaken. "I thought I could take a walk," she said. Who would rob a 92-year-old woman? Who would shoot an 8-year-old girl?
Actually, according to the Oakland Police Department's crime statistics, serious crime is significantly down from last year. As of Oct. 13, homicides are down 19 percent, aggravated assaults are down 4 percent, rape is down 25 percent and residential burglaries are down 18 percent.
Robberies, however, are up by 25 percent. And robberies with a firearm are up 45 percent; more than 2,300 robberies this year have involved firearms. Those are huge increases in a crime that is both scary and random. Most homicide victims know their assailant; most robbery victims do not.
A couple who had recently moved to Oakland was walking home from BART and a man jumped out of a car, pointed a gun at them and took their iPhones. Women getting their nails done at a salon were robbed at gunpoint.
Oakland police say a couple of things are driving the robberies. New young residents equipped with expensive iPhones and iPads are unsuspecting and easy targets.
Sgt. Arturo Bautista said it's almost become a trend; groups of kids rob someone and brag about how easy it was. The market for stolen electronic devices has made robbery more profitable than drug dealing. To that point, arrests for drug possession and sales have declined steadily since 2009 when there were 3,067 by Oct. 13; this year there were 1,002.
A police analysis early this year found nearly 75 percent of robberies involved a smartphone. Further, the shortage of officers hampers the investigation of the crimes.
The problem extends beyond Oakland. In June, U.S. prosecutors reported that nationwide, 1.6 million people had their smartphones stolen last year; an estimated 30 to 40 percent of all robberies involve smartphones.
The "Secure Our Smartphones" initiative calls for manufacturers to install a kill switch on new smartphones by the beginning of 2014 as a means of curbing the market for stolen phones.
In the meantime, there are things you can do to protect yourself from being a robbery victim. Too often, people are so absorbed with their phone or other electronic device they are oblivious to what's going on around them. Police advise common sense precautions -- be aware of your surroundings and treat your phone or device like a purse or a wallet. Don't draw attention to it when you're on the street, which probably means you shouldn't be texting nonstop while you're walking (a common practice with hazards other than being robbed.)
So the two stories of Oakland persist: the frightening place where a 92-year-old is robbed during her morning walk, and the inviting city where people enjoy restaurants, the arts, the natural beauty and each other. Unfortunately for Oakland, the bad reputation has always overshadowed the good. People who don't know Oakland have an overwhelmingly negative view and the media is largely responsible.
Even Oaklanders, however, are not immune. You don't have to be a robbery victim to be concerned. You may have heard about the experience of a friend or a neighbor. Or maybe you walked into the nail shop 30 minutes after the crime.
The crimes happen. The attractions are real. They don't cancel each other out. That is the dual reality of Oakland.