Chasing the Rubbish Ruffians

In a city where scofflaws dump 45,000 cubic yards of garbage per year, a handful of determined law enforcers struggle to make a difference.

It’s a quiet night in West Oakland, and Lerneda Lacy fills the silence listening to soul music softly on her rental car’s stereo. She answers the occasional call from home, but otherwise the litter-enforcement officer sits gazing fixedly at a mound of garbage in the shadow of a building at 32nd and Louise streets as though she expects it to grow. It’s not an unrealistic expectation in a city where public works employees remove more than 45,000 cubic yards of illegally dumped furniture, appliances, trash, and debris from the streets each year.

A battered pickup truck drives slowly along Peralta Street. A dumper, Lacy suspects. She pulls away and follows at a block’s distance — a trick she learned from Law and Order, she later admits. The truck makes several turns and parks. The litter cop pulls over, too. She gets out and casually strolls past the truck. Its bed is empty, meaning one of two things: Either the driver is just another guy trying to get home for the night, or she’s too late and he’s already dumped his load on the streets — another large-scale litterbug in a city overrun with trash. “The only way we can catch the dumper is to do something like this,” she explains.

The stakeouts are part of a partnership between police and public works departments that is intended to catch the scofflaws in action — Lacy is on the public works end. They target the hot spots, primarily low-income areas such as the 9800 block of Pearmain Street in East Oakland, or near the highway overpass at 35th and Peralta streets in West Oakland. “They tend to think it’s the new dump yard or something,” says Shirley Burnell, a West Oakland resident. “It makes you feel like people don’t think you’re worth very much if they can just come over and dump their trash.”

Not far away, police officer Todd Mork sits in his squad car waiting to make an arrest should Lacy or one of her colleagues spot a dumper in the act. “When a neighborhood looks dirty,” he says, “it allows other criminal activity to settle in.”

Between January 2002, when the antidumping unit was formed, and July 2006 it cited 1,784 people, says David Ferguson, the unit’s supervisor, who culled the numbers from annual reports. Roughly 20 percent of the rubbish ruffians came from out of town. As of mid-November, the total number of cases was approaching 2,250, according to Lacy.

Yet city officials concede their efforts are but a Band-Aid. Too many people view the Oakland flats as a place they can leave unwanted stuff and avoid dump fees. Far too few are punished, public works employees say. Nearly one in five of the cases Ferguson cited were dismissed. Along with fine reductions, and offenders who either cannot pay or cannot be located, those dismissals have eaten into the unit’s revenues. As of last July, the city had collected just $250,000 of the $2.1 million in fines first imposed in those 1,784 cases. “The collection process is long and drawn out,” Lacy notes.

Those who do end up paying are often the dupes. Sure, some of the illegal trash comes from individuals unloading that broken fridge or dilapidated sofa. But most, the workers say, is the work of illicit haulers and unscrupulous contractors. Lacy estimates these fly-by-nighters are responsible for up to 70 percent of the rubbish, yet virtually none of the cases since 2002 have targeted them. Unless the city can prove that the trash belongs to the hauler, or can catch him in the act, it’s one person’s word against another’s, and the hauler walks.

So who does pay? Ask Oaklander Tina Hicks. She hired a hauler not long ago when she moved from San Francisco and wanted to unload some old stuff. Her then-boyfriend found 2nd Mile Hauling in the want ads: “24 hour Immediate Service! NO JOB TOO SMALL!” it promised. She called the number listed, and a nice man showed up to take her stuff to the dump. The man even warned that many companies dump illegally, but promised he was different, Hicks recalls. Several weeks later she received a $1,000 fine by mail from the city, because that nice man had dropped her identifiable trash on the streets of Oakland. “I was appalled; I couldn’t pay this!” says Hicks, a single mother and registered nurse. “It was a hardship. Not only did I pay him $300, then I’m also paying the fine?”

After hearing her story, city officials reduced the damage to $510, which was still a blow, Hicks says. They never nabbed the crooked hauler. Hicks had lost her receipt during the move, so there was no evidence as to who’d done the hauling — only whose stuff had been hauled.

One day in November, Jeff Van Eck, who drives a packer truck for public works, responded to a dumping call at the Lake Chabot municipal golf course. There he found a mound of debris — chunks of drywall, pieces of wood, and empty boxes for fluorescent lights. Amid the detritus was a piece of a blueprint and several items of mail bearing the San Leandro address of Victalina Canales.

At her home several days later, Canales said she was shocked that her garbage had ended up on public property. She’d remodeled her garage recently, she said, and a man driving a red Comcast pickup had stopped by one day and offered to remove the debris. Canales claims she paid him $375 and asked for a dump receipt. “He said, ‘I’ll give it to you later,'” she recalled. “He never did.”

Reached by phone, the hauler, who identified himself as Steve Shabbazz, denied doing anything illegal. He claimed an associate had helped him haul some of the junk, and that this person, whose name he didn’t know, might have dumped illegally to avoid the fees — Davis Street Transfer Station, three miles from Canales’ home, charges $25 per cubic yard for household garbage, $100 per ton for construction debris. Asked if he could produce dump receipts, Shabbazz, who also claimed to be a family friend of Canales’, said he could not find them. In the end, Canales may get off the hook, if only because workers disturbed the pile before the litter cops could document the evidence.

Oakland currently has six litter-enforcement officers to patrol the city. Lacy spends her days driving to garbage piles on public property, where she takes pictures and searches for clues to the trash owner’s identity. But even with evidence in hand, it can be hard to nail those truly responsible.

Dismissals have become less frequent, Lacy says, since officials met with small-claims court judges to emphasize the importance of litter enforcement. But because people often dump or hire cheap haulers while moving, it’s harder to track them down in the first place. When someone doesn’t have the means to pay fines, moreover, the city often won’t waste money taking them to court, according to Lacy. She would like the city to increase its dumping penalties, and to force those who can’t pay to do community service — ideally trash pickup.

One of Public Works’ more effective enforcement tools, Lacy says, were the stakeouts initiated with police in 2002 and 2003. These were funded by a hefty California Integrated Waste Management Board grant, however, and the stakeouts ended along with the grants. “At first we were making a big difference,” Lacy says. In 2006, the city shelled out for more overtime and so the stakeouts resumed, but they have netted few citations.

The stakeout on this particular evening proved fruitless. As Lacy passed the intersection of 35th and Peralta, she shook her head in disgust at bags of trash that covered the sidewalk. People in more-affluent areas of the city, the litter cop noted, don’t realize what poor people in the flats live with. “You wouldn’t find that stuff up there,” she said. “It shouldn’t be down here.”

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