- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2004

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When Luther and Maria Distler discovered their Montclair, Calif., home had been burglarized in August, they learned that the Oakland Police Department couldn’t do much for them unless they could provide the name of the burglar. The department provided a list of flea markets and pawnshops where they might find the stolen jewelry — items, they later observed, that had survived the Holocaust but not Oakland’s crime wave and the Oakland P.D.

The retired couple could have grumbled and given up. Instead, they decided to play detective. “In order to change a community, you need active participants,” Maria explained as we sat at their dining table Thursday morning.

To the Distlers’ surprise, they found some of their jewelry at a flea market by the Berkeley BART station. With the help of a BART police officer, they got the name and driver’s license number of the man who sold the items to the flea-market vendor. “We were so excited,” Maria noted.

The excitement soon turned into consternation. As early as Sept. 4, the Distlers tried to share the name they found, but the lone officer assigned to burglaries in the Oakland Police Department failed to return their calls — until they left a message weeks later warning they were about to go to a City Council member.

They then got a phone call and soon learned that the name they provided belonged to a man with a burglary record. Silence and inaction followed.

In the meantime, a rash of cat burglaries had become the talk of the East Bay hills. Many hill homeowners believed Oakland police didn’t take their crime wave seriously. (For their part, the Distlers think Oakland police would have been less responsive if they were African Americans who lived in the flats.)

On Oct. 28, the suspected cat burglar “made a mistake,” as Luther Distler noted.

What mistake? He went to Orinda.

Orinda police were alerted by citizens to a suspicious prowler. With the help of residents, police dogs and helicopters, they apprehended one Derric Craig Lewis — the very man whose name the Distlers had tried to give to the Oakland P.D. Orinda responded to the burglaries “like television cops,” Luther said with a smile.

Why not Oakland? As neighborhood watchdog Stephen Fox complained to the Montclarion newspaper, many residents called police only to see no fingerprinting and little follow-up.

Lewis has yet to be tried, and it is not my intent to convict him in this column. The point, rather, is to berate Oakland City Hall for failing where Orinda succeeded, even though Oakland residents were up in arms over the police’s failure to move against this crime wave. And some residents fear the crime spree may not be over, that there may be more than one burglar. Oakland Police Chief Richard Word told me he agrees that Lewis may not be “good” for all the recent cat burglaries.

The Distlers don’t want to be too critical. “You get what you don’t pay for,” Luther noted. They feel the city can’t solve this problem if residents aren’t more involved and that citizens, not just government, have to be part of the solution.

The Distlers are not happy that their story likely will make Oakland residents trust Oakland P.D. less.

Which begs the question: Where was Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown?

We talked Friday, and Brown’s knowledge of the story was not what it could have been. He kept saying that the police “got” the guy, apparently unaware that Orinda arrested Lewis. The mayor’s response: “What’s your point? Things happen. The police are not perfect. They make mistakes.”

Brown noted that he called the department brass after he learned of the Distlers’ story. Brown also complained about shortages in police staffing and the serious crime problems the city faces. There have been “five homicides within three blocks of where Ann and I live,” he said. Credit Brown, at least, that he’s living in the part of Oakland that would love to have Montclair’s problems instead of violent crime.

That said, Brown could have been quicker, and he should have known more about this story. “I wish you would ask (outgoing Police Chief Richard) Word to see exactly what happened,” Brown said.

It was his last official day on the job, Word said, as he lamented, “I don’t have the resources to go out on every burglary”; his priority had to be on “violent crime.”

And: “Trust me, we catch quite a few more burglars than the Orinda P.D.” According to state records, Oakland arrested 349 adult burglars in 2002, almost one a day, compared to two adult burglars in Orinda.

I sympathize, but Oakland police might have had fewer crimes on their roster if they had talked to the Distlers on Sept. 4 or shortly thereafter.

It says something when an elderly couple can find the name of the man who sold their jewelry, while Oakland police didn’t bother to look.

Jerry Brown has now set his sights on running for state attorney general. If this is his idea of acceptable law enforcement, if this is his idea of good police work, then he is not ready to be the state’s top lawman.

Debra J. Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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