OAKLAND — Burglaries have plagued just about every corner of this beleaguered city of late: Last year, Oakland averaged one break-in every 42 minutes — a 44% increase over 2011.
So when Mayor Jean Quan recently included a workshop on lock-picking in the "Something for Everyone" section of her newsletter, it didn't go over well.
"Of all the incredibly unbelievable things I've witnessed in my life, this tops the list," one resident wrote in a letter that asked Quan to cancel the class. "What next?" another wrote on a neighborhood chat forum. "The fundamentals of armed robbery?"
In a hasty apology, Quan said she regretted the "inappropriate listing," which was part of a 20-page cut-and-pasted newsletter of local events assembled by volunteers. "It strikes the wrong note when we're doing everything we can to bring down crime," she said.
The Introduction to Lock-Picking class, to be held Saturday evening, is part of a downtown Workshop Weekend that includes more than 40 offerings, including Build a Robot, Electroluminescent Wire Projects, DNA Sequencing and Telescope Making.
The event was launched two years ago by a pair of brothers eager to help residents of all ages find their passion and learn how things work. But now Gil and J.D. Zamfirescu have found themselves doing damage control while giving this city a primer in the subculture of "sport-picking."
"We recognize there is a lot of community concern," Gil Zamfirescu said in an interview. "But the best way to combat crime is to educate yourself, to understand locks so you know how to protect yourself better."
Or, in the words of the 19th century locksmith and lock-picker Alfred Charles Hobbs: "Rogues knew a good deal about lock-picking long before locksmiths discussed it … the spread of the knowledge is necessary to give fair play to those who might suffer by ignorance."
Hobbs is a legend to the hobbyist lock-picker community. His quote graces the website of the Open Organisation of Lockpickers — or TOOOL — a group that started in the Netherlands and expanded to the U.S. in 2004.
In light of the Oakland brouhaha, the organization — which is hosting the Saturday class — has agreed not to offer the lock-pick kits normally sold at workshops and competitions. And just to ensure that all goes well, U.S. TOOOL co-founder Babak Javadi (a Philadelphia security consultant) and fellow board member Brian Rea (a security expert known in lock-picking circles as Deviant) are making a special trip to Oakland.
TOOOL has a strict code of ethics that association members and workshop participants must follow, including, of course, no lawbreaking.
And instructors abide by guidelines on what they will and won't teach. Rea said they dispense lock-pick kits but don't sell bump keys — which are used to quickly and forcefully open a lock. (They do explain bumping and discuss ways to make locks bump-proof.)
Though Javadi and Rea do provide know-how on covert entry, or the secret sexy stuff of James Bond movies, to their private clients, largely law enforcement and security officials, "we temper how we disseminate information, depending on who the audience is," Javadi said.
As for the risk of educating burglars, he said most can find guidance online without having to "pay $40 and come to an event where you have to use your real name." Besides, he said, the vast majority of burglars enter through open doors, kick them in or are lucky enough to find a key hidden under a rock.
Saturday's workshop description beckons: "In many cases, opening a lock without a key is easier than you think!" Open to participants ages 10-101, it has sold out.
"Sometimes a 12-year-old will come to a meeting and they're great. They just get it," said Michael Fitzhugh, a member of San Francisco's TOOOL chapter, who will be teaching the workshop. "For most people, it takes a lot of time and practice."
As for Quan, she called the class "part of a do-it-yourself, garage-science sort of event, and those are popular in our creative community." Still, she promised to "do a better job reviewing these listings in the future."