Surveillance program to catch illegal Oakland dumpers not working, city admits

The city of Oakland spent $100,000 on a pilot surveillance camera program to catch illegal dumpers.  But the problem is, even as a pilot program, the cameras don’t appear to be working to curb the larger problem, city officials acknowledged. 

While illegal dumping continues to be a multi-million dollar worsening problem for Oakland, the city issued 45 citations in 2017 and while only seven offenders paid their fines in full.  Over the same period, the city received more than 25,000 calls for service to respond to reports of illegal dumping.

In an interview with 2 Investigates, city officials admitted the video evidence isn't always strong enough to punish the offenders and other times, the offenders simply ignore the penalties.

What’s the camera program all about?

In 2016, KTVU’s 2 Investigates teams held its own sting operations involving cameras to catch illegal dumpers in the act. In an interview, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said illegal dumping was a $5.5- million problem for the city. After the news report, the Oakland City Council approved its own pilot program purchasing four surveillance cameras and license plate readers. The cameras have been placed around the city and are able to be moved around, according to Greg Minor with Oakland’s City Administration’s Office. It is a pilot program, he said, so this period is being used for the city to find out if it works and if it’s something on which it’s worth spending more taxpayer money.

Are the cameras catching illegal dumpers?

The short answer is no. But both officials from the Oakland’s City Administrator’s Office and the Public Works Department are among the first to admit the system so far is not working as well as they'd like it to. And they are reconsidering whether to spend further on any more cameras.

“Enforcement continues to be a challenge within the city of Oakland, across the state and across the U.S or even internationally,” explained Minor. “Number one, you have to have evidence to prove they violated the law and illegal dumping is often done at night or quickly and it can be difficult to identify the wrongdoer.”

Minor added some of the most egregious illegal dumpers ignore citations, so the city is trying to work with violators to get them to stop.

“The city recently conducted a study that found the majority of debris dumped is residential and near multi-family residents,” he said.

The city of Oakland is publicizing his underutilized bulky pickup program that’s now available to home owners and renters living in multi-family building. 

Oakland’s illegal dumping problem does not appear to be improving

Oakland’s Public Works Department provided 2 Investigates with data showing city workers are picking up double the amount of illegal dumping that it did five years ago.%INLINE% %INLINE%

East Oakland business owner Ricardo Ron told 2 Investigates there’s a city camera right outside his building and it hasn’t help to clean up is street.

“No, it’s been the same. My opinion, I think they’re dummy cameras. If they’re catching [dumpers], they’re still doing it,” he said.

In West Oakland, business owner Buffy Cereske says she calls every day to report illegal dumping in front of her building.

“It’s frustrating when we call for dumping and there has been more dumping two or three times since the initial phone call,” she said.

Oakland’s Public Works Department spokesman Sean Maher agreed saying city crews often can’t keep up with the amount of trash being dumped.

What is working to help fight Oakland’s illegal dumping issue?

Eradication is something Oakland seems to be making solid moves in improving. Maher said, out of the 25,000-plus calls for service the city received last year, crews responded to all of them, and thousands more. In fact, he said, in the last half of 2017, city workers responded to 95 percent of the calls in one day.

Some Oakland residents and business owners feel differently, including Mike McGuire from East Oakland.

“I could go on and on about the reports we call into the city, e-mails and it falls on deaf ears,” he said.

City officials admit, illegal trash is being dumped faster than city workers can picked them up. Nonetheless, Maher explained how the city has significantly improved its response times to illegal dumping calls from the public.

What’s next for the pilot program?

The city is grappling with what to do next. While the surveillance cameras aren't yielding citations or fines as city officials had hoped, other alternatives under consideration could be even more problematic.

“Although $100,000 sounds expensive, law enforcement officers are also expensive ,” Minor said. “Having them sit at a location for a given time when they could respond to another call…arguably, cameras may be a better resource."

More resources on addressing Oakland illegal dumping.