Bay Area Publishers Catch Newspaper Thieves in the Act

The following is included in a Citizen Crime Report faxed last week to the Oakland Police Department by Bart Brodsky and Janet Geis, publishers of OPEN EXCHANGE MAGAZINE, a quarterly directory of local events and services.

On Nov. 8 at approximately 3:05am Janet Geis and I witnessed the theft of several hundred newspapers and magazines from news boxes at College and Claremont Avenues, Oakland in front of the Bank of America.

We saw an African-American male, 40ish, 6 feet tall or taller with dark clothing and a baseball cap, and an African-American female, 40ish with short hair and wearing a dark overcoat, in the process of unloading large stacks of papers out of news boxes and filling the back of a pickup truck parked in the Bank of America lot adjacent to the sidewalk.

We had no intention of directly interacting with the couple, but, as magazine publishers ourselves, we were out to gather evidence useful for prosecution. I snapped four photographs from inside our vehicle as we approached the couple. Then I drove around the corner and entered the parking lot from Claremont Avenue in order to get close enough to identify the make and model of the vehicle being loaded.

The dark green GMC pickup truck had no state license plates on either front or back. In place of plates were signs reading “Half Price Auto.”

The truck bed was filled almost to the top with untied, mixed papers from many publications, including East Bay Express, SF Weekly, San Francisco Bay Guardian, OPEN EXCHANGE MAGAZINE and others. A shopping cart was on top of some of the loaded papers, apparently to weigh them down and possibly to be used for later unloading.

At about 3:07 am Janet dialed 911 and described the situation to a dispatcher. She told the dispatcher that we were following the pickup and wanted a patrol car to come out to intercept. We continued following at a safe distance as the pickup took a meandering route through residential neighborhoods toward West Oakland. As the truck proceeded, loose copies of the current East Bay Express flew out the back of the bed.

Expressing concern for our own safety, the 911 dispatcher told Janet that we should quit our pursuit, park, and wait for an officer to meet us to file a report. Janet replied that since the pickup had no license plates, if we did not continue our pursuit it would be almost impossible to prosecute. Janet reiterated that we needed the assistance of a patrol car. The dispatcher then became agitated and warned we might be killed if we did not stop. She said that police would not respond by chasing the thieves because it was dangerous, and besides this was petty theft, not a serious crime. Janet replied that the theft of newspapers is indeed serious and mentioned the law against it.

I took the phone and implored the dispatcher for assistance. I reiterated that the thieves were driving a vehicle without plates, and that should be reason enough to dispatch a squad car. The dispatcher said that police would not do anything about a vehicle without plates. By this time both Janet and I were quite frustrated, and after about 12 minutes we ended the call. Is it really the policy of the Oakland Police Department to allow strange cargo vehicles with no plates to wander the streets at will?

At approximately 3:22 am Janet called 411 and was connected directly to the Oakland police department. The person taking the call sounded like the same dispatcher, and again she said that she would not send a police car to take a report unless we were parked. At one point Janet turned the phone over to me, and I reiterated the fact that Gov. Schwarzenegger had signed legislation making the theft of free publications a criminal offense as of Jan. 1, 2007. “If Schwarzenegger calls I might respond,” was her reply.

The pickup finally stopped at Poplar and 27th Street, where the couple parked and started to unload papers. We passed them, made a u-turn at about 26th, and parked at 28th and Poplar. Janet told the dispatcher we would wait there for a patrol car. While we were waiting the pickup drove off, and we did not pursue it.

We never saw a patrol car. At about 3:51 am Janet phoned police dispatch a third time to say we did not want to wait any longer, and that we would file a report the next day. In response to Janet’s request, this dispatcher identified herself as #7, and said that earlier we had been talking with dispatcher #36.

On the afternoon of Nov. 8, the editor of the East Bay Express told us that an Oakland police lieutenant was aware of the theft problem and would try to budget for a police stakeout. This is good news, and we are grateful for any support. However, will a patrol car be dispatched the next time a citizen catches a thief in the act?



Janet Geis and I publish OPEN EXCHANGE MAGAZINE, a quarterly directory of local events and services. Over the last few months we have found many of our news boxes suspiciously empty, so in mid-October we started a systematic survey which included several early morning stakeouts. On the morning of Oct. 31, we found as many as 90 or more locations empty throughout the East Bay, on San Pablo Avenue from El Cerrito through Oakland, on Telegraph, Shattuck, and College Avenues from Berkeley through Oakland, on University Avenue, Berkeley, and on Grand Lake, Lakeshore, and MacArthur Avenues, Oakland.

Many of our racks had been filled within the past 24 hours. We would restock a location one day and revisit it one or two days later to find it empty again. This is highly unusual, considering that a normal restock should last for a couple of weeks or longer.

OPEN EXCHANGE MAGAZINE is not the only publication being stolen. Between Oct. 27 and Nov. 7 we observed many sets of empty racks belonging to the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Epoch Times, Jobs & Careers, the Real Estate Book, and several other publications, all apparently targets of systematic theft.

The obvious motive for these thefts is money. With recyclers paying upwards of $.06 per pound for “scrap” paper, a thief can load a truck or van and in a couple hours make perhaps $80 a load. The money is tax-free and the thief can work on his own time.

The problem is, it’s illegal.

The value of a “free” paper is sometimes misunderstood. “Free” is not a license to take unlimited quantities. Publishers have a right to limit their offer. OPEN EXCHANGE MAGAZINE states in writing that we offer “a limit of one free copy per reader. Additional copies may be purchased for $5 per issue.” Each rack holds up to 75 copies, with an average of 25 copies, so the loss of all magazines from 100 racks could be calculated at $12,500. But the value is far more than that: The theft of free papers threatens hundreds of jobs in the publishing industry as well as thousands of advertisers who depend on these publications. More importantly, hundreds of thousands of readers — and voters — are being deprived of the vital news and services that these publications collectively provide.

The State of California recognizes that “free” publications have intrinsic social and commercial value. Section 490.7 of the California Penal Code makes it a crime to steal more than 25 copies of any free paper. A first offense is punishable by fine, and a second offense can result in jail time.

As publishers, we strongly urge all local police to enforce this law in order to deter or thwart repeat offenders, and allow us to continue publishing.

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