Montclair Village safety ambassador pilot program deemed successful
By Lou Fancher
If the truth be told, not all Montclair Village or city of Oakland short-term pilot programs are successful. When the Shop Safe Oakland Initiative provided city funds in late 2022 for Montclair Village “safety ambassadors” to patrol the streets during the holiday season, though, they hit a home run.
Engaging with local merchants and offering security to residents and visitors to the area, the ambassadors escorted shoppers to vehicles, monitored problematic individuals and locations, de-escalated tension and conflicts and collaborated efficiently with the Oakland Police Department in situations involving greater measures of intervention or actual crimes. Daniel Swafford, the Montclair Village Association’s executive director, coordinated the program after energetically pursuing funding and support from the city of Oakland.
“The holiday shopping, dining and self-care season is a critical time for the viability of small businesses. It was wonderful to work with (former) Mayor Schaaf and the Oakland Police Department in receiving a grant to fund the full-time, on-street safety ambassadors,” Swafford said. “The hope is that the public saw the broad effort to make commercial districts, and in this case the Montclair Village shopping area, places we can come to with a sense of safety.”
Safety ambassadors during the 30-day trial period that ended Saturday were on the streets eight hours a day, seven days a week except for Christmas and New Year’s days. Direct mobile phone numbers were made available to the public for requesting assistance, and flyers explaining safety ambassador services were delivered to merchants. Kevin Gilmore, of Oakland, served as one of the ambassadors. In an interview Jan. 13, the second-to-last-day of the program, he reflected on the experience.
“I come from the inner city, so coming up here was entering a different walk of life,” Gilmore said. “At first, it was touch-and-go if I was going to do it. But once I was up here and felt welcome, it made me want to do it and to live up to their expectations.”
Gilmore downplays his skills when asked what he brought to the position, mentioning only that he has experience in security work.
“To be honest, it was just me being me. It’s not one set skill; I just take my job seriously,” he said. “I know not to judge but to observe and not act on impulse. Like with certain style cars, a person can be judgmental. But coming from the inner-city, I can feel a person out, and 95% of the time, I can use instinct.”
Gilmore’s interactions ran a gamut, from escorting people to vehicles and reminding shoppers to place purchases in trunks instead of on car seats to providing directions to parking locations to reporting suspicious or actual criminal action to Swafford, who then communicated the information to Oakland police.
“I approached one circumstance in a way so the police could get there,” he said. “I can’t say the specifics, but let’s just say security isn’t about putting your hands on people. If you talk to people, if you tell them you don’t have to do this or that, once you make them feel you’re not judging them, it makes a situation way better. There’s no violence.”
Asked if he will participate if the program receives more funding and continues, Gilmore responded in the affirmative.
“Yes, hands down. Why? Because not only from the good business perspective but in the way the community and Dan have welcomed me, I feel comfortable. People in the community say they see a difference. Merchants thank me, and there are even people who come check on me and bring me coffee when I’m working. Just making a little difference along the line, we might make a bigger difference to keep people from hitting on the elderly or other people or doing crimes.”
Swafford said Gilmore was an ideal candidate for a position that required people who are outgoing, able to communicate effectively and quick to establish and reliably maintain relationships with local merchants.
“We leaned on Bay Alarm Company supervisors who knew the people best suited for these posts. We had to move quickly, and so we relied on their partnerships for referrals.”
Montclair Village regularly engages with Bay Alarm for safety patrols in the district. Limor Margalit, Bay Alarm’s director of sales and security agent services, said that in setting up safety ambassador service for Montclair, one of three districts covered by the company, his role centered on working closely with merchants. By addressing their concerns with the on-street presence of a uniformed ambassador during the holiday season, Gilmore said residents and visitors also benefited.
“Long-term merchants told us having a guard trained to help in different situations was important,” Gilmore said. “For people shopping, the guards made them feel safe by walking with them. Escorting someone to a car is just one example of something they did that the police cannot do.”
Swafford walked the shopping district;s streets during the holidays, introducing the ambassadors to owners and staff at key businesses. He held briefings and relied on digital reporting from the ambassadors to receive updates and provide feedback.
“There was an auto burglary and we advised (that) they connect with a neighboring business and relay that to me so I could get any camera images to pull and relay that to OPD,” Swafford said. “That happened on multiple occasions, unfortunately. We also saw shoplifting and theft that spills beyond store security.
“In one case our ambassador provided information that led to an arrest. Proactively, we consulted on casing the neighborhood. Kevin just being present on the street led to deterring crimes and also he reminded people to put items in secure places out of sight.”
Swafford hopes the program will continue.
“I’d love to take the feedback and report what the ambassadors were able to do to the mayor,” he said. “We had boots on the ground, investment in crime reduction and a good partnership with OPD that allowed them to be more efficient. These are the obvious gains. We don’t have the budget for it, so we’ll look to funding from the city of Oakland and put whatever resources we have in the (Montclair) Village toward continuing it.
“Merchants in the area are still struggling, and, to be honest, some might not make it, so we don’t want to see people taking their money out of the area because they don’t feel safe. An investment in this type of program in Oakland’s General Fund will pay for itself with increased economic activity throughout the city. If given the opportunity, that’s how I will present it to city officials.”