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Oakland Community Organizations reach out to defuse street violence

on March 20, 2010

Oakland Police Captain Paul Figueroa stood in his dark uniform at the front of the crowded church on Thursday night, hundreds of pairs of eyes watching him take the microphone. “I’ve been wanting to do this my whole life,” he said and paused, smiling. “Can I get an ‘Amen?’”

“Amen!” the obliging crowd shouted, erupting into laughter and applause.

It was standing room-only at Saint Columba Catholic Church, on the border of the Golden Gate and Paradise Park neighborhoods, where hundreds of Oakland community members had gathered. But Figueroa was not here to preach a sermon. As a law enforcement officer, Figueroa was one of several key players gathered by the Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), a faith-based federation of fifty congregations and schools, to educate and engage the community about violence intervention strategies.

The OCO invited public safety officials, policy makers, faith leaders, and community members and visiting members of the National Network for Safe Communities (a coalition of citizens and public workers concerned about community crime and crime policies) to this large meeting, called the “Lifelines to Opportunity” community action. Community actions are key components of the OCO organization model: leaders conduct research to develop possible solutions to local problems and then invite public officials to a large meeting such as this one, called an action, where they present their solutions and ask the public officials to commit to the community to bring about the suggested change.

Amy Fitzgerald, associate director of OCO and one of the event’s organizers, said the purpose of Thursday night’s event was to educate the community about two violence intervention strategies on which Oakland Police Department, Neighborhood Service Coordinators, and Department of Human Services are coordinating: a violence-prevention street outreach team and the use of “call-in” sessions which are community interventions that aim to provide young people in legal trouble an alternative to incarceration.

Members of the Oakland Street Outreach program stood against the wall of the church, noticeable in their white jackets with the Measure Y logo and the message “For a Safe Oakland” printed on them.  The Oakland Street Outreach program includes an eight-person team that visits Oakland’s violent hot spots on nights and weekends. According to the Measure Y website, by maintaining a presence and talking with the youth hanging out on streets, the outreach team can help with conflict mediation and long-range truce negotiations, calming dangerous situations on the streets. Outreach workers also work with case managers to connect youth to appropriate services and resources, according to the site.

Many of the team’s members have been involved with violence, crime or gang activity in the past, which gives them credibility with the youth on the streets, according to Kevin Grant, the Oakland Street Outreach Coordinator.

“Street workers are an important piece because we come from that. We’ve lived through that,” said Ajay Benton, an outreach worker from Providence, Rhode Island, and a partner with the National Network for Safe Communities invited to speak during Thursday night’s action. “We know how to intervene because we have the right knowledge,” he said. “These kids take to us.”

Oakland’s Street Outreach is funded through Oakland’s Measure Y, the special parcel tax Oakland voters passed in 2004 to augment fire service and pay for violence prevention programs for high-risk youth.

Kevin Grant, Street Outreach coordinator, spoke briefly about the team’s progress, saying that it has an excellent working relationship with law enforcement — in his words, “We’re tighter than seven Budweisers in a six-pack.” He said that the two groups’ quick response and teamwork were able to defuse a recent stabbing at the Fruitvale BART station during which a gang member was injured from leading to a much more violent gang retaliation.  “That was what you didn’t see on the news that night,” he said, and the crowd loudly applauded.

Grant went on to request community help with events the team wants to hold for Oakland’s youth this spring and summer. Grant said the outreach workers want to hold events similar to the National Night Out, a nation-wide annual event during which residents are encouraged to have neighborhood block parties or other outdoor social events intended to build neighborhood unity and spirit.

Figueroa helps organize Oakland’s other major violence intervention strategy: the call-in sessions. These sessions provide an opportunity for the community to confront the young offenders on the consequences their actions have on the community, but also let them know they are valuable to the community.  Generally, a call-in session works like this: the a police department invites district attorneys, representatives of support services, faith leaders and members of the community to come together to hold an intervention for young people whom police have identified as habitual or violent offenders. Most of the young people are already on parole or probation, or are affiliated with gangs. The offenders are “called in” to attend the interventions, listen to the testimonials of the community and the cases stacked against them. They are informed that local law enforcement has enough evidence to make a case against them, but that the cases are temporarily suspended. They are given a choice: take the help being offered or continue to commit the crime and the cases will be activated.

Cities around the country are implementing call-in sessions to reduce crime and violence in their communities. To see how call-in sessions work in High Point, North Carolina, click here.

Figueroa said that although it is his job to arrest and incarcerate offenders, “The call-ins give me another tool. They allow me to say ‘Stop the violence, or I’m going to take you to jail, but” — he paused for emphasis —“We’re going to show you a way out.”

The event’s organizers also brought in violence intervention experts from around the country to speak about the importance of outreach and community involvement. Pastor William Mason II, of High Point, North Carolina, was one of several faith leaders, community organizers, ex-offenders, and outreach workers who spoke on the importance of, and the successes involved with, community outreach as a violence intervention strategy.

Mason serves with High Point Communities Against Violence, a volunteer network of members of the faith community who work with offenders before, during and after a call-in session. Mason said that relying on law enforcement is not enough to stop the violence. “Community and clergy have been given a commission to go and make disciples,” he said, gesturing forcefully and speaking with the energy of a Sunday sermon. ”Whose responsibility is it to go out and get those kids that are perpetrating these crimes? No, it is not solely law enforcement, but He calls us to go get our children,” he said to thunderous applause and cheers.

Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts also attended a portion of the event. He spoke about growing up in crime-ridden and impoverished south central Los Angeles, and recalled being mentored by a community member and the impact that had on him. “Those programs work,” Batts said, “When you can reach out to a person and tell them that you can become anything you want to be, and mentor them and stay with them, they can be successful.”

Kendra Dunlap and Andrew Peters, both OCO leaders and members of St. Columba, announced the three goals the OCO wanted policy makers to commit to implementing: expanding the street outreach program to 25 full-time positions at an estimated  cost of $1 million,  sustaining and strengthening the call-in sessions, and creating a position either in the Oakland mayor’s office or in its Department of Human Services for a community outreach coordinator to connect interested community members with violence intervention programs. “We can find a way to pay for it,” Dunlap said, and she listed county funds for subsidized employment, federal stimulus money, foundations, and private and public partnerships as potential sources.

Olu Oluwole, an OCO leader and member of St. Patrick’s church in West Oakland, called on the three City Council members in attendance — Jean Quan (District 4), Larry Reid (District 7), and councilmember-at-large, Rebecca Kaplan — to take leadership of the community’s priorities.

The policymakers were receptive but careful to avoid promising any funds. “It’s a very hard year, but I’ll work with you,” Quan said, adding that if elected mayor she would be able to appoint a community outreach coordinator. Quan also challenged those in attendance to mentor a child, and she gave the example of her own staff member who dedicates time each week to work with youth on the street near her Laurel District office.

“I will not lie to you in this house,” Reid said, pointing to the cathedral ceiling overhead. “It’s gong to cost about a million dollars, and I don’t know where that’s going to come from.” Reid said he fully supported OCO and was willing to work with the organization, “but I’m not going to give you a political speech,” he said, implying that he would not make promises on which he could not deliver.

Kaplan read a passage from the book of Isaiah, which criticizes those who speak out against self-righteous acts but do nothing to serve the needs of the community.  She also pointed out the vacant public safety coordinator position on the mayor’s staff, and suggested it might be converted to the community outreach coordinator position OCO had requested. Kaplan also promised efforts to evaluate programs funded under Measure Y to ensure the best use of the city’s money.

Jeff Baker, assistant to the City Administrator and overseer of Measure Y, represented Mayor Ron Dellum’s office. He agreed with the council members that the city’s financial situation is grim. “We don’t fool ourselves, we know [the money allotted towards outreach] is not enough,” he said, citing the mounting deficits the city is facing, which he said are expected to total $30-$35 million by July, making additional funding towards outreach programs unlikely.

A low rumbling of anger and disappointment rose up from the audience. Oluwole asked him, “Are you telling me these are the mayor’s words?”

“We are partners, folks,” Baker replied calmly. “There is no $1 million to put into street outreach.” Baker said that he did not think an inability to increase street outreach workers would result in an automatic surge of violence on the streets.

Following Baker’s statements, Oluwole reiterated a reoccurring theme of the evening, that the value of human lives far outweighed the financial cost of the violence intervention programs.

Debra Snow, OCO leader and a member of St. Columba, led one of three closing prayers. “Lord, we are not going to worry about the how, because the how is in your hands…whatever we need, you will provide,” she said, to a resounding “Amen.”

After the event ended, several community members joined the event leaders at the front of the church, shaking hands and chatting. Snow said that she has been involved in discussions with city officials about trying to move more money towards violence prevention. “We’re trying to get the mayor and City Council beyond this idea of ‘There’s no funding there.’ We’re saying ‘No, we need to find funding,” she said.

Snow said that OCO members are ready to do their part to help raise money for their outreach programs. “We’re willing, if they’re willing, to do our part to find funding elsewhere, too,” she said, listing possibilities such as holding community fundraisers, or seeking help from businesses or foundations. “It’s too important an issue for us not to move forward,” she said.


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