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San Francisco Cracks Down on Piracy as Arrests Made

The era of modern piracy in San Francisco Bay may soon be walking the plank.

After a viral story about the emergence of pirates in San Francisco Bay, it appears the public outcry has attracted the attention of city officials.

In late summer, U.S. media began covering the battle in San Francisco Bay -- homeless encampments taking to the water in stolen boats under the cover of darkness to steal from local residents and marinas.

Shortly thereafter, the U.S Coast Guard was forced to step in to patrol the area and deter piracy.

At the time, former Oakland Marina harbourmaster Brock DeLappe told NBC Bay Area, "Over the last couple of months it’s become extremely severe, boats are being stolen almost on a nightly basis. Residents in marinas are scared, they’re talking about forming groups, they’re arming themselves. Someone’s going to get hurt if this is not taken seriously by authorities.”

Alameda’s Marina Village Yacht Harbor manager Steve Meckfessel told the San Francisco Chronicle, “It’s almost the Wild West. It’s almost as if you were on a ship and there are pirates out there, and there’s no government, no one to protect you.”

Not only were vessels being stolen, including large sailboats and powerboats, smaller items were being targeted as well-- most notably outboard motors.

Other items included gas cans, portable fuel tanks, housewares stored on larger boats, tools, food, clothing, and any marine equipment or parts that could be re-sold.

The media quickly highlighted that both San Francisco and Oakland were seemingly without the resources to stop the marauders. The Oakland Police Department has only two full-time marine officers, and the Alameda County Sheriff's Office had only one part-time patrol covering the Oakland Estuary -- an 800-foot wide stretch that separates Oakland and San Francisco that is the epicenter of the problem. Now it appears that city officials are listening to worried residents and have begun cracking down.

According to Yahoo News, a series of raids were conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard which resulted in multiple arrests. The alleged thieves were then turned over to the Oakland Police. According to Oakland Police spokesman Paul Chambers and Yahoo News, at least one suspect was charged with possession of stolen property while investigators look to build a federal case against them.

According to Chambers, it's believed that the thievery in the Estuary is organized by two primary suspects.

"There has been an increase in crime on the waterway, and it's likely due to a few new anchor-out persons that have recently acquired a sailboat and anchored in the Oakland Estuary," Chambers said.

"The Oakland Police Department is aware of an uptick in the theft of boats and in some occasions, the boat motor, which have occurred in recent weeks," police said in a video statement.

A Coast Guard spokesperson, as well as the Oakland and Alameda police departments, have said they're working together to reduce crime.

"Any time you're dealing with a waterway or an estuary or residents that live on a marina, it's difficult to pinpoint what boundaries are. So we take on a regional approach, not just with our waterways, but with crime as a whole in Alameda," said police chief Nishant Joshi.

"We partner with the Oakland Police Department and with the Coast Guard. And we think that by doing so we can force multiply."

The response comes after several heated council meetings where local residents lashed out at those responsible for protecting the public. In an article in Fox News, one local resident, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation, said she's risked her own safety to help others being threatened by pirates.

"They're yelling, ‘Help me, please, please. Anybody help me.’ And I go out there in my kayak with a headlamp, and there is a sailboat drifting down the Estuary, and with my kayak I towed it to shore," the woman told Fox News.

She said that onboard was a "panicked and terrified young man," who claimed pirates cut the lines on his sailboat during an argument.

"If there had been any wind at the time I wouldn't have been able to go out there and rescue this young man who had no motor and no ability to sail that boat," she told the outlet.

Despite the media buzz, there is also a clear undertone from police that public perception may be out of sync with the reality on the waterway. In his video address, police chief Joshi referred repeatedly to data and statistics as being the deciding factor when allocating resources to the Estuary, not a media frenzy.

"There's a perception that there's a concern with safety in our marinas. And so, to address those concerns our approach is going to be to increase patrols, to further educate the community, and to take the appropriate action when we are met with, or face, an incident where criminal activity is afoot," said Joshi.

The San Francisco Standard was also measured in recent reporting, stating that "while the data shows that the number of calls for service on the Alameda waterfront is not higher than last year—in fact, it’s down 5%, year to date—many residents of the area’s marinas insist there has been a definitive uptick in crime."

Therein lies the disparity between statistics and public perception. Local resident Marcus Powell, who lives on a boat at an Alameda marina, told the Standard: “It’s gotten to the point where I am sleeping with a weapon next to me."

“It’s definitely worse than it’s ever been,” added former Oakland harbor master Brock de Lappe. “(It's) heading toward a disaster. Someone’s going to get hurt.”

Meanwhile, Oakland Police maritime officer Kaleo Albino countered the public perceptions, telling the Standard: “I think there are two people doing all the crime. It’s not the majority of the anchor-outs.”

Whether the piracy is the scourge that residents claim, or an amped up mirage created by the media, the arrests of those believed to be responsible should clarify the matter for San Francisco residents.

If the thieves become embroiled in federal cases, which carry significantly stronger penalties than state or local infractions, San Francisco Bay should see a safer waterfront in the months ahead.

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