Twenty people from fifteen of the most violent groups in Oakland gathered in one room a week ago Thursday, as city officials, law enforcement, and community members appealed to them to stop shooting as part of the city’s latest violence prevention effort.
The private meeting, described for reporters in a news conference this week, officially kicked off Oakland’s new version of Operation Ceasefire, a nationally renowned violence prevention strategy that targets a small number of violent offenders in the city and offers them a choice: stop the violence and receive community support, or bring your gang or clique focused attention from law enforcement and the justice system.
Officials invited the 20 individuals to the meeting, where they delivered that message in the presence of family members, clergy, and law enforcement, said Oakland police lieutenant Leronne Armstrong, one of the department’s Ceasefire leaders. All 20 showed up, said Armstrong, who attended the meeting. To protect the individuals’ anonymity, he declined to disclose exactly where the meeting took place, but said it was at a neutral location like a church, recreational center, or library.
Now, everyone is waiting to see if the message takes.
“Now you have to assess the violence,” Armstrong said. “You have to wait and see what response you get.”
As of early this week, Armstrong said, none of the groups whose members were called to the meeting had engaged in any reported gun violence. Police and city officials have declined to disclose the identity of the individuals or the groups.
The Ceasefire approach has been credited with dramatically reducing gun violence in Boston, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. Oakland tried an earlier version of Ceasefire three years ago, but failed to sustain it. Now, with significant community support and assistance from non-profit violence prevention organization California Partnership for Safe Communities, officials hope the program will slow the city’s growing problem with gun violence.
About 60 people attended last Thursday’s discussion, Armstrong said, which began with members of the clergy expressing support and sympathy for the 20 individuals present. Next, people who had been personally affected by gun violence appealed to the individuals.
“I no longer have a son,” said Brenda Grisham, mother of 17-year-old son Christopher Lavell Jones was gunned down late 2010 in front of his home, in an interview. “The message that I was trying to get across to the young men was that pretty much there’s a better way to handling things.”
Armstrong said a member of the Highland Hospital staff talked about the day-to-day difficulties faced by gun violence survivors, some of whom are severely crippled.
Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan, along with federal law enforcement agencies and a representative from the U.S. attorney’s office who were present at the meeting, promised increased attention from law enforcement if violence among the groups continued, Armstrong said.
“I think the message was very clearly articulated,” said Imani Community Church Pastor George Cummings, who helped organize the meeting. “From what I could tell, they were listening very intently.”
At the close of the Ceasefire meeting, more than half of the individuals filled out forms expressing interest in support services like education and job training, alcohol and drug programs, and other health services, Cummings said—a positive indication. At least some of the services will be coordinated by Measure Y and Oakland’s Department of Human Services, he said.
“They actually need different outlets,” said Grisham, who has started a nonprofit organization that gives scholarships to students wishing to pursue careers in the arts, like her son. “They’re out there trying to make quick money, nobody wants to work at McDonalds, and most likely they don’t have anything past a high school education.”
Whether they continue to pursue the offer remains to be seen, Armstrong said.
“It’s going to be downplayed for a while—people don’t really understand what it entails,” Grisham said. “But as long as they don’t stop–not tomorrow, but sooner or later–we’ll see something happening.”