Oakland goes six weeks without a murder, the longest stretch in 15 years
on September 24, 2014
For six weeks this summer, no one was murdered in Oakland. The 43-day murder-free period from August 2 to September 13 represented, police said, the longest stretch without an unlawful killing since the late 1990s.
In the early morning on September 14, the streak was broken when Reginald Beamon Jr, 28, was shot and killed on 83rd Avenue. Beamon’s death became the 49th murder in Oakland this year.
The murder-free stretch reflects “a general trend” of “more significant reductions in crime,” said Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent, pointing out that in 2013 and 2014, Oakland had several two- and three-week periods without a murder. Whent said that he was encouraged by the six-week break but that there is still a lot of progress to be made. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near getting to the point where we can say we have an acceptable crime rate,” he said. “Compared to other large cities, in the Bay Area even, and even at reduced numbers, Oakland still has way too high of a crime rate.”
A six-week stretch without a killing in Oakland didn’t seem possible two years ago, when the homicide rate reached its highest point since 2006. There were 126 murders in 2012 in Oakland, including the shooting of seven people at Oikos University. The homicide rate had dropped from 146 murders in 2006 to 90 in 2010, but then began climbing again in 2011, when it was up to 103 murders.
But in 2013, according to the OPD’s crime report documentation, homicides dropped by 28 percent, aggravated assaults by 10 percent, and rapes by 31 percent. So far, 2014 is set to have the lowest number of homicides in the last five years. By September 21 this year, there had been 51 homicides, compared with 70 during the same period last year, 80 in 2012, 77 in 2011 and 61 in 2010.
But where did this fragile peace come from? And does it mean that the city is moving towards a more peaceful state, or was it simply a statistical anomaly?
Whent said the declining crime rate is due to increased cooperation from the community as well as Operation Ceasefire, a crime reduction strategy. Oakland police and city officials launched Ceasefire in late 2012, but Whent said that they “only got it working well in 2013.” It’s a labor-intensive program, in which faith leaders, community organizers, youth leaders and criminal justice agencies identify individuals and gangs who have been previously responsible for violence. These people are then offered a choice between increased community participation and support, in the form of job training, access to education, and oversight by dedicated case workers, or vigorous monitoring from multiple law enforcement agencies.
“Last summer we devoted the resources necessary to meet the enforcement end of it,” Whent said of Ceasefire. “When we first started, I don’t know whether we had that level of commitment to the program.”
The size of Oakland’s police department has been an issue in the past with committing to crime reduction strategies, but Whent said staffing increases are helping—on September 22, a new class graduated from the police academy, bringing the number of sworn officers up to 684.
Jason Overman, spokesperson for councilmember and mayoral candidate Rebecca Kaplan, said that having enough police officers is crucial in reducing violent crime. Police staffing has been low since 2010, when Oakland City Council voted to lay off 80 officers and 21 cadets, driven by a $31.5 million city budget deficit. Kaplan was one of three councilmembers to vote against the police layoff, which Overman said was “a huge mistake that City Hall cannot repeat.”
“In 2010, we had over 800 police officers and violent crime was going down 15 percent a year,” Overman said. He said the layoffs were responsible for an increase in violent crime in the following years. “If you dramatically understaff [the department], then you shouldn’t be terribly surprised when you don’t get the results that you want,” he said.
The number of local residents on the police force is also important to reducing crime, Overman said. Kaplan has proposed legislation that would set a goal of making half of the hires next police academy come from Oakland, in order to build strong relationships and trust between residents and police officers. Overman said citizens, and in particular, witnesses, need to be comfortable talking to police officers, and that this would aid violent crime reduction strategies. According to police records, as of September 18, just 49 of the city’s police officers were Oakland residents.
Whent said he was hesitant to put a target number on how many police recruits should live locally, but said that the police department is “definitely trying” to increase local hires. “We’ve certainly made a lot of progress in hiring more ethnically diverse classes that much more closely resemble the population of the city,” he said, pointing out that the number of female recruits has also gone up.
Organizers from Ceasefire did not return interview requests asking for their response to the murder-free period, nor to Whent crediting them for the reduction.
But not everyone is convinced that the Ceasefire strategy is completely responsible for the six-week streak. John Torres, the deputy director of Youth ALIVE!, a nonprofit organization that works on preventing youth violence and fostering leadership, said that sometimes, strategies that align themselves with law enforcement struggle because community members perceive them as “punitive.”
“More often than not, it’s short-term effectiveness,” he said of this kind of approach, “and it doesn’t get to the issues behind real change.”
His organization operates three programs with a largely community-based approach to reducing crime. Through one program, Caught in the Crossfire, young adults who have survived violence are trained to help young people who have recently been shot or otherwise attacked, and urge them not to retaliate. These advisors are meant to behave non-judgmentally, said Torres. “We want to see where [the victims are] at, and where we can help them.” Many of the program’s clients are gang members, but also, Torres said, they may be at risk of injury “just because of where they’re living or the route they have to take to school.”
But Youth ALIVE! works with law enforcement, too, he said. “Increasing dialogue with the police has been key” to the group’s success, said Torres. Through both Caught in the Crossfire and Teens on Target (another program that helps high schoolers educate younger students about violence prevention), the participants speak with current and retired police officers to give feedback and find out what police officers’ duties involve, he said. He agreed that Ceasefire has had an effect on crime rates in Oakland, saying that Youth ALIVE! works closely alongside it, “but in a parallel universe.”
One surprising factor is that Oakland’s murder-free period took place over the summer, when crime usually goes up. Homicides, aggravated assaults, rapes and sexual assaults tend to spike during this season. But the spike is less pronounced now than it was 40 years ago, said Janet Lauritsen, a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri at St Louis. “People used to spend more time outdoors in the summer than they do now,” she said. “Increased outdoor activity means more exposure to other people.”
This idea of exposure is what Lauritsen and other researchers into seasonality of crimes, such as David McDowall, criminal justice professor at the University of Albany, call “the opportunity theory.” “The old-fashioned hypothesis,” said Lauritsen, “is that hot temperatures make people really aggressive and therefore more violent. What McDowall shows is that once you control for temperature, you still have a summer peak. It’s not because hot weather makes people fly off the handle. It’s more of an opportunity thing, because people spend more time together.”
There may not have been any murders in Oakland in August, but there were certainly other crimes: 177 aggravated assaults, including 28 committed with a firearm, 12 rapes, and 219 robberies, including 91 with a firearm and 7 carjackings. Aggravated assaults are down just 1 percent from last year, while rape is up 9 percent.
And there were two deaths that were not classified as murder or manslaughter: those of 23-year-old Jacorey Calhoun, who was shot and killed by an Alameda County Sheriff’s Office deputy on August 3, and 22-year-old Hector Uribe, who was shot and killed by a swap meet security guard at the Coliseum Flea Market on August 31. Whent said that the flea market homicide was under investigation as justifiable homicide. Calhoun’s death is also classified as justifiable homicide under the California penal code section 196 as he was allegedly fleeing from a police car stop in a vehicle that was connected to a home invasion robbery.
So is Oakland becoming less dangerous? Overman said the data has to be looked at over the long term, and that the six-week hiatus in murders should not be “prematurely” celebrated. “We can’t celebrate on a Saturday that there has not been a murder lately, and then have a murder on a Sunday,” he said.
But Whent said that as community crime reduction strategies continue, citizens have said to him that they’ve noticed an improvement in their interactions with the police force. “Not only do they see a difference in the crime rate,” he said, “but they also see a difference in the officers. Officers are getting out of their cars, talking to people, interacting with them in positive ways.” He said he believes this will continue to contribute to crime reduction.
Whent said that “there’s always going to be little upticks” in the crime rate, but added that the police department is focused on making sure officers react very quickly to incidents to prevent them from “spiraling out of control.”
And Torres thinks there’s yet another factor that helped cause the six-week break. The lift in the economy following the 2008 slump has led to better opportunities for young people in Oakland, which he said he thinks has contributed to the decrease in murders over the past two years. “People were really desperate,” he said, “and the ones that were most impacted were communities that were already impoverished.” Now, he said, young people can find work more easily. “A job changes a lot of people’s lives,” said Torres. “And it’s usually a positive change.”
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