November 7, 2020

Alarming news of roving criminal gangs in Oakland


Dear PERF members, 

This week I received a startling email from Susan Manheimer, who’s serving as Interim Chief of Police in Oakland, CA.  Susan said she’s wondering if other chiefs are experiencing something she’s seeing in Oakland – caravans of armed, violent robbers descending into neighborhoods and burglarizing or robbing multiple businesses. They target businesses with high-value consumer goods, including cannabis businesses, pharmacies, and electronics stores.

Susan said Oakland first experienced these crimes during demonstrations in May and June, and it happened again on Election Night.  The marauding gangs seem to be trying to take advantage of the fact that police are occupied by these major events.

Susan sent me a list of 10 separate incidents between 9:15 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. on Election Night, including attempted break-ins or robberies of an auto body shop, a Best Buy store, a Starbucks location, a shoe store, and multiple cannabis stores.

During one of the Election Night incidents, officers interrupted an attempted burglary of a cannabis business, arrested more than a dozen individuals, and recovered nine guns. As the gang members fled on foot and in vehicles, three Oakland officers were struck and injured by vehicles. An Oakland officer fatally shot one person. Emergency medical aid was provided, but the subject, a 26-year-old Oakland resident, was pronounced dead at the scene.  

At another incident less than an hour later, up to 30 shots reportedly were exchanged between a security guard at a cannabis shop and people trying to break in. The guard reportedly was shot and hospitalized. As many as 50 cars were parked outside the shop during the attempted robbery.

In several other incidents, 10 or 12 cars were involved.

“These are loosely organized marauding caravans of up to 100 vehicles hitting a region and then splitting into violent smaller groups,” Chief Manheimer told me. “They have become very violent, all too often resulting in an officer-involved shooting, which one did the other night.”

Susan said these criminals are using cell phone apps to organize and attract more participants at these criminal events.

In the days after Election night, similar roving gangs attacked businesses in other cities in the Bay Area, including a sporting goods store and a Walmart in San Lorenzo, and a shoe store and other businesses in Emeryville and Richmond. An Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman said the incidents are being committed “by the same crew.”

Oakland police are working with the other Bay Area police agencies and the California Highway Patrol to address this threat.

Why are cannabis businesses being targeted?

Cannabis-related businesses are targeted more than other types of retailers, because they tend to have more cash on hand. That’s because cannabis remains illegal under federal laws, so banks are afraid to accept cannabis businesses as depositors, for fear of running afoul of banking laws.

An article in Forbes this week noted that in all five states that had cannabis legalization measures on their ballots on Tuesday – Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota – the measures were passed overwhelmingly.  But as the article noted, “[Cannabis] businesses are still hampered by the banking ban caused by the federal illegality. These punitive restrictions have forced many cannabis businesses to operate as cash-only enterprises, even if they subsist in a legal market.”

The U.S. House of Representatives last month approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act for the third time, which would establish protections for banks that open accounts for cannabis businesses. But the measure has not advanced in the Senate.

This seems like an example of unintended consequences when state and local governments pass laws (or voters approve initiatives) to decriminalize cannabis, but the federal government goes its own way. In the meantime, local police agencies are literally getting caught in the crossfire in Oakland and other cities.

There is a larger issue here. A PERF report released earlier this year noted that violence associated with the distribution of marijuana and other illegal drugs is a major concern in some cities. Former New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill said the NYPD tracks the circumstances of all homicides in the city, and that about 25 percent of homicides are connected to drug distribution, with many of those cases involving marijuana.

So while marijuana possession may be a victimless crime, marijuana businesses – both legal enterprises and illegal markets – involve a lot of money that is attractive to criminals. Prosecutors’ roles are important in this area.

I don’t have a solution to this new problem of marauding gangs of robbers, but I would welcome comments, and I’ll forward your suggestions to Chief Manheimer.

A word about Election Day

One more thing I have to say:  In the days leading up to the election, we all saw all kinds of warnings about possible disruptions that might occur. This has been one of the most contentious elections of our lifetimes, and many people were afraid of confrontations between individuals or groups at polling places.  The COVID pandemic also resulted in big changes in how the election was carried out.

Complicating the situation, police need to have a light touch on Election Day.  It isn’t always easy to strike the right balance between being unobtrusive while also being ready to respond immediately to any need for a police presence.

Thankfully, we saw very few new stories about any kind of disruption.  Police and sheriffs’ departments deserve so much credit for helping to make that happen.

In the post-election period, we’re seeing some demonstrations in New York City, Philadelphia, Detroit, Denver, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland, and other cities, so it’s not over ‘til it’s over.  Police will continue to have a critically important role in maintaining the peace.

I was talking to Mike Harrison, Police Commissioner in Baltimore and PERF President, and he wanted to make sure that PERF members understand how much we appreciate what you have done to support everyone’s right to vote, maintain the peace and order at polling locations, and prevent conflicts and disruptions.

On behalf of Commissioner Harrison, the PERF Board, and myself, thank you for the work you do.

I hope you can get some rest this weekend.