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Could the closure of Oakland's only In-N-Out help the city with its crime problem?

Baldwin Park, CA, Thursday, April 21, 2022 - Scenes from In-n-Out Burger. For 101 places in California travel story. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
An In-N-Out Burger in California. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

The demise of Oakland's only In-N-Out restaurant due to increasing crime could be the last straw for community members — and possibly a blessing in disguise for local leaders who've been pleading for help.

This week, In-N-Out announced that the burger joint near Hegenberger Road, a main route to and from the Oakland International Airport, would close its doors in March.

"Despite taking repeated steps to create safer conditions, our customers and associates are regularly victimized by car break-ins, property damage, theft and armed robberies," Denny Warnick, chief operating officer for the company, said in a statement.

Some Oakland residents believe the crime problem persists at least in part because of Mayor Sheng Thao.

The group Oakland United to Recall Sheng Thao, led by a former Alameda County Superior Court judge whom Thao removed from the city's Police Commission in June, has faulted the mayor for not declaring a state of emergency on crime, not replacing the police chief she fired in February, and missing the application deadline last year when Gov. Gavin Newsom's office offered more than $276 million to cities and counties to fight retail thefts.

On Friday, the group published a notice of intent to recall and plans to start collecting signatures in early February for a petition to put a recall on the ballot. The mayor did not respond to the notice by the legal deadline, the group said on X, formerly Twitter, so the recall petition won't include any response from Thao to the group's criticisms.

"After missing the deadline to apply for a retail theft grant worth millions of dollars to assist Oakland in battling crime, she has now failed once again to respond to voters as to why she should not be recalled," Seneca Scott, spokesperson for the group, said on X. "Mayor Thao must realize that there is no defense for the indefensible. The current state of Oakland is deplorable, and she is directly at fault."

In a statement to The Times, Thao said, "As mayor, I have prioritized this critical gateway to Oakland and surged police presence and employed technology to deter and respond to criminal behavior."

Thao said the added public safety resources have led to a reduction in property crimes along the Hegenberger corridor.

"However, more is necessary, and I will be working with regional and state leaders to protect this tourist gateway into Oakland," she said.

Others in the city believe the current situation is largely the result of state or local laws that they believe impede enforcement, such as Proposition 47 from 2014 and Proposition 57 from 2016. In a statement, the Oakland Latino Chamber of Commerce said In-N-Out's decision to close its Oakland outlet is sad, but departures like that are happening more and more in their communities.

"Many businesses small and large in the state are suffering from ongoing crime, and a lot of times the police have their hands tied and can't do much because of a city ordinance or laws that end up protecting criminals instead of the victims," the statement said.

The chamber said,"when the city, state leaders and prosecutors do very little to stop crime, this is the end result, businesses close and people start giving up."

Several In-N-Out restaurants have been relocated over the course of its 75-year history. But the Oakland location will be the first the company has had to close.

"We feel the frequency and severity of the crimes being encountered by our customers and associates leave us no alternative," Warnick said, despite the location being "busy and profitable." The company can't ask its customers or employees "to visit or work in an unsafe environment," Warnick said.

The move drew headlines across the country, in part because it reinforced the argument by some conservative pundits that the liberal Bay Area is being destroyed by crime. The politics surrounding the closure became so intense, the largest group of In-N-Out aficionados on Facebook decided to ban posts about the Oakland closure, SFGate reported.

In an interview, Oakland City Councilmember Treva Reid conceded that her district is reeling from rampant crime, but said she regrets that this caused the company to close its doors. It wasn't the first, as many local businesses have had to close their operations.

Reid has been dealing with the problem since she took office in January 2021.

What should be a welcoming economic hub for locals and tourists coming into the city from the airport is instead a place where "you have to look all around you when you're pumping gas," Reid said.

The community "lives in the midst of all the disparities that you can imagine [and] we carry the weight of that in this district," she said.

For the last two years the councilmember has been calling on local, regional and state partners to create a regional interagency public safety task force because the current siloed approach isn't addressing the problem.

The councilmember's office has been wrestling with the issue from different angles, including adding more foot patrols, securing a commitment from the California Highway Patrol to dedicate overtime hours to the area, increasing efforts to suppress burglaries, and obtaining $1 million for community safety ambassadors.

Reid said the district saw a 40% reduction in crime, and yet "you'll hear from businesses that it's not enough." The councilmember doesn't contradict them.

"People are showing up in this corridor like [committing crimes] is their everyday job," she said. "They're clocking in and clocking out and wreaking havoc in between."

In bimonthly meetings, Reid gets about 75 business owners at the table with department leaders, faith leaders, the neighborhood council, the police department and the sheriff's department to figure out what can be done.

"We are a force multiplier of advocacy, to put a demand on our city and county local leaders to get the resources into this corridor to make it look clean and beautiful ... and tackle this crime issue," she said.

In 2023, auto burglaries in the area dropped 23% from the previous year's total due in part to additional resources deployed by the Oakland Police Department from July through December.

While progress has been made in one section of the city, the Oakland Police Department's crime analysis of gunfire show that reports of violence throughout Oakland have risen 21% last year compared with 2022.

Against this backdrop, Oakland's 700-person police department has been operating with a vacuum at the top since last February, when Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong was fired for mishandling police misconduct cases. At the end of 2023, the Oakland Police Commission presented Thao with three potential candidates, and she rejected all of them.

Tim Gardner, co-founder of the online publication Oakland Report, criticized the decision to fire Armstrong, saying Armstrong fostered relationships and trust with the community. Thao, he said, has lost that trust.

He's appealed to the City Council to establish a task force dedicated to improving public safety, with regular reports to the community to track its progress. The council didn't bite.

"[Councilmember Reid] was the most engaged and responsive of the council members, all the others kind of wanted to avoid it," he said. "Because to put together a task force that is dedicated to the safety problem, would kind of be an admission that you have a problem."

Even though Gardner doesn't live in Reid's district, he said residents throughout the city need to hold their local leaders accountable to do more to ensure public safety. He said what affects one district, affects them all.

Reid is trying to create a different kind of task force, a regional one that would be held accountable for the situation in her community. In the short term, she said, many people are reaching out to help.

She said she hopes they'll stay long after the spotlight cast by In-N-Out's departure fades.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.