In the span of one day this month, flying bullets left five men dead in the city of Oakland.
The violence grimly highlighted Oakland’s gun violence problem — of the more than 90 people killed here this year, a rate outpacing last year’s, most were shot to death. “Violence in our city is unacceptable,” said Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan, speaking to reporters last Thursday about recent homicides. “It will not be tolerated.”
The rise in shootings has prompted city officials and community members to revisit a violence prevention program Oakland tried before but failed to sustain, one that specifically targets offenders with known track records of gun violence.
Under the program, called Operation Ceasefire, those individuals will be told that if they – and the gangs they belong to – stop the shooting and the killing, community and religious organizations will be standing by with job training, education, and other support services. But if they don’t, law enforcement and prosecutors will crack down on the groups through a variety of tactics, both in and outside of the courtroom.
The plan was tried three years ago in Oakland, but it withered without strong direction. Now city leaders are pledging to try it again, this time with renewed fervor. Jordan has said he expects the program to begin in earnest in about two weeks.
Officials say the initiative, like dozens of similar programs launched around the country, is intended to change the way the city tackles violent crime. By bringing community members directly into the implementation of the program, officials hope Ceasefire will provide a solution to the gun violence that has become a permanent fixture in the city.
“I want us to be known for more than gun violence,” said Michael McBride, leader of the national anti-violence campaign Lifelines to Healing, who is involved with organizing Ceasefire.
How the program will work
The basic idea behind Ceasefire is that the number of individuals perpetrating Oakland’s gun violence is actually very small, and that most of them are connected to an identifiable violent group. Oakland police Lieutenant LeRonne Armstrong, who is helping organize the program, said he estimates about four to five percent of the city’s population is responsible for most of its violence.
Armstrong said Ceasefire in Oakland will first target 15 such groups in East Oakland.
He said police will identify people who have already been convicted of gun crimes and are part of these violent groups but are out in the community – parolees, people on probation, or other known offenders, he said.
Police will call the targeted individuals to a “neutral” location, like a church or library in the group’s community, instead of a threatening environment like a police station, he said.
Then police will communicate a message to the groups through these individuals that the violence must stop, that the community is on board, and help is available, Armstrong said.
He said probation and parole officers will include the meetings in the terms of parole or probation for the targeted individuals to ensure they will turn up. If the individuals aren’t on probation or parole, police – in conjunction with members of the community or clergy – will go find them.
If the groups do not stop the violence, they will face increased scrutiny from police and the justice system, scrutiny that Armstrong said would vary depending on the groups. For groups that tend to spend time on street corners, increased patrols may be necessary. Other groups tend to spend time indoors, so police will have to try something else, he said.
He declined to say exactly what strategies police will use.
He added that federal agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, ATF, and U.S. Marshals, have also pledged to give attention to noncompliant groups.
“When we leverage those partners, we’re looking to basically do some heavy enforcement,” Armstrong said.
Alameda County Deputy District Attorney John Creighton said prosecutors could increase the penalties offenders potentially face by bringing in the U.S. attorney to prosecute certain crimes and applying stiffer plea bargains for offenders.
“We’re not picking guys that we just don’t like,” Creighton said. “We’re picking guys that have a proven track record of criminal activity.”
Representatives from the police department and mayor’s office declined to say which groups were being targeted or which individuals would be contacted as part of the Ceasefire program.
If the groups and individuals agree to the terms offered to them, and the violence lets up, community and religious organizations will provide job services, vocational services, GED programs and other help, though Armstrong said he could not provide any specifics. He said support would vary from person to person.
“What we try to do is let our case managers figure out what’s best for them,” he said. “They’ll figure out together what’s best for the individual.”
The broad context
Oakland’s model is similar to models that have been credited for dramatically reducing violence in cities like Boston, Cincinnati, and New York. Versions of the program have also been praised by the U.S. Department of Justice and by state agencies that fund local anti-violence programs in California.
Oakland’s program is patterned most closely on that of Boston, where Ceasefire, the brainchild of criminologist and academic David Kennedy, targeted high rates of youth gun violence and murders.
According to a 2001 Department of Justice report evaluating Boston’s program, during the months after Ceasefire’s implementation in 1996, youth homicides dropped from an average of 3.5 to 1.3 per month, a 63 percent reduction. This drop, known as the “Boston Miracle,” spurred the implementation of other programs across the country.
Oakland leaders hope a strong local Ceasefire collaboration between the district attorney’s office, the county probation department, police, city officials, and religious and community organizations will help replicate similar results.
“We do believe that bringing all of our institutions and our services and resources to the table can certainly help with more accountability, more stability, more leadership and more attention being paid to this,” McBride said.
Oversight and technical assistance from California Partnership for Safe Communities, a non-profit violence prevention organization, will cost approximately $95,000, said Reygan Harmon, Mayor Jean Quan’s senior policy adviser on public safety and one of the project managers for Ceasefire. Other funding for the program is already built into the police department’s budget, she said.
“I think it helps cities, certainly cities that have limited resources, better utilize limited resources to better combat issues that impact lives in probably one of the most egregious ways,” Harmon said.
Armstrong said the funding and oversight from the organization is critical to Ceasefire being successful.
“It gives us the experiences that other cities are having, best practices,” he said.
But Ceasefire’s history is a little bit more complex than the apparent success story in Boston in the years after its implementation. Officials in New York and Los Angeles have said that getting all community organizations to work in harmony with the police department and city government can be difficult.
In Boston, where Ceasefire first gained its national reputation, city leaders ended the program in 2000 due to manpower shortages in the police department and other problems, according to a 2008 report from Harvard University. Afterward, the report found, youth gun violence increased.
Oakland’s first attempt at implementing Ceasefire seemed to display this same dysfunction.
In 2009, the city, under former Mayor Ron Dellums, received a $3 million grant from a now- defunct California agency to reduce gang violence. A resolution authorizing the spending passed unanimously in the city council, and the gears started to turn. Several beats in West Oakland were identified as target areas, according to a 2009 staff report.
But the program foundered. Community members, city and county officials, and the representatives from the police department point to a number of failures that caused the 2009 program to collapse.
According to Creighton, law enforcement and city officials did not allocate enough manpower to find the initial target individuals to communicate the violence prevention message to their respective groups. Imani Community Church pastor George Cummings, who is helping organize faith-based organizations to support the initiative, said the program was doomed partly by unfilled holes in the city staffing that had initially provided leadership.. Harmon said the city council did not provide enough support for the program, and that the community was not fully brought on board. Armstrong said the program was viewed as mainly a police initiative, something without the backing of the community, undermining its credibility.
They agree that Oakland did not fully commit to the Ceasefire program, and as a result, saw no positive results. This time, however, the program is being retooled, according to a report detailing crime prevention strategies presented to the city council.
Officials are focusing on East Oakland instead of West Oakland this time around, Harmon said. Community leaders seem to be fully involved, as participants at rallies and marches over the last few weeks drawing hundreds have expressed optimism for Ceasefire’s success.
“I’m a real believer in the Ceasefire model for stopping violence, particularly gun violence,” Oakland councilmember Libby Schaaf said at an anti-violence rally last month, when hundreds marched from across the city to downtown Oakland. “Events like this are a very important part of that strategy where the community unites and sends a very clear message that we will not tolerate violence anymore.”
But Armstrong said the optimism should be guarded, as the program may take time to be successful.
“Quite honestly, will they take the message immediately? We don’t know,” he said. “We’re very hopeful.”
Pendarvis Harshaw contributed to this report.