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New prosecution team aims at “gateway crimes”

on October 6, 2008


SEPT. 29 — Against the backdrop of Oakland’s highly publicized homicide rate, City Attorney John Russo introduced a new crime-fighting team this morning–a group of three city prosecutors charged with investigating crimes like disorderly conduct, graffiti and cockfights, in hopes of improving quality of life for residents all over Oakland.

“These crimes are not as shocking or evil as homicide or rape,” said Russo, “but they have a chilling effect on quality of life.”

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City Attorney John Russo introduced a new crime-fighting team-    Video by BAGASSI KOURA

Oakland, where the year’s homicide rate had reached 105 by Sept. 21, has been ranked the fourth most dangerous city in the nation. The city generates the highest number of criminal cases in Alameda County, with more than 28,000 property and assault-related crimes reported to Oakland police in 2007. Of these, only about 3,600 cases were assigned to investigators; about 2,700 resulted in charges by the DA. According to a report submitted to the city council last spring, cases went uncharged for reasons, including staffing limitations.

Officials hope that the launch of what has been dubbed the Special Prosecution Team, a team of three city prosecutors, will alleviate the burden.

The newly-hired prosecutors, Mario José Jovel, Eli Ferran and Reve Bautista, have all been put on the city payroll and deputized by the Alameda County District Attorney’s office. They will work with the county prosecutors and the Oakland Police Department to prosecute the kind of non-felony crimes that officials have characterized as a “plague.”

These crimes include illegal dumping, loitering, prostitution, cruelty to animals, drug use and sale, disruption around school grounds, gambling, violations related to massage parlors, urban stream and creek pollution, illegal repair or modifications to vehicles, reckless driving, and sale of liquor to “habitual drunkards.”

“You’ve heard of gateway drugs?” Russo said after the press conference. “A lot of these crimes are gateway crimes.” If left unpunished, he said, these chronic, seemingly petty crimes can create a general feeling that there is no enforcement, opening up the community to more violent crimes.

Likewise, these “quality of life crimes” can give police and prosecutors an in, he said, allowing them to track more serious crimes pervading the city.

Illegal dumping of oil into city drains by mechanics, for example, might lead investigators to a stolen car ring, Russo said. Shootings or other violent crimes could be traced to a household known by police to exhibit consistently dangerous behavior.

The prosecutors will begin by supplementing the work already being done by the DA’s office, but will eventually take the lead from community members, identifying trends and priorities. Prosecutors will “deal with the priorities of the neighbors, not the priorities of the bureaucrats here at City Hall,” said Russo.

“It’s our intent that the residents themselves will determine what the work program will be,” he said. “This program will grow in a way that is holistic, organic and responsive to the needs of the community.”

Each city prosecutor will be assigned to one of the OPD’s three area commands: Area 1, which encompasses North and West Oakland; Area 2, the Fruitvale district; and Area 3, East Oakland.

Russo said the first year’s goal is to have each of three prosecutors assigned to 100 cases. The goal for the second year will be 200 cases each; for the third year, 300 cases each.

“It’s not going to keep going up after that,” he said, laughing. “If we have the threat, the ‘stick’ of prosecution, we’re going to be in a better position to massage the social fabric.”

San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco have implemented similar city prosecutor programs. Oakland’s city council authorized this program last spring, budgeting more than $650,000 in funds this year.

“We don’t want to ‘just’ send more people to jail,” said Russo, stressing that the Special Prosecution Team will incorporate restorative justice programs like the McCullum Youth Court, in which young people act as the jurors, public defenders and prosecutors of their offending peers, and the Oakland Artist Graffiti Abatement Program, which partners young people accused of vandalism with a professional mural artist to paint over graffiti and learn new artistic skills.

“It’s about preventing people from being thrown into jail, preventing a culture of lawlessness and anarchy and crime before it happens,” he said.

Catching himself waxing poetic about the anticipated efficacy of the new team, Russo noted that the program is not a quick fix or a cure-all.

“This is Oakland. We’re not going to deal with this like it’s the Wild West,” he said. “We have problems that need to be addressed aggressively. You’ve got to jump in the pool and start swimming. We’re doing just that.”||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||


  1. Pollution Of The California Coast on January 25, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    secution team aims at “gateway crimes” | Oakland North? Seriously? I was searching Google for pollution of the california coast and found this… will have to think about it.

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