The Oakland Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have partnered since June, 2014, to tackle the city’s large number of active and cold homicide cases still under investigation. Almost a year later, their new joint workspace in the police administration building is nearing completion and they have just launched a billboard campaign designed to encourage residents to come forward with information that can help them solve older crimes.
The FBI Safe Streets Task Force, a program of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Violence Reduction Network, is a partnership between federal and local law enforcement leaders focused on reducing violence. In 2014, the FBI designated 10 agents to collaborate directly with the OPD’s Criminal Investigations Division. Now, the joint task force will work on solving the department’s over 2,000 cold case homicides as well as the active cases that are overwhelming the OPD’s criminal investigations unit.
They took their latest step towards reaching this goal on September 10, when the task force, along with Clear Channel Media, an advertising company, unveiled a new digital billboard on Interstate 880 asking for information on the homicide of Aya Nakano. According to the FBI’s press release, Nakano, a 22-year-old from Emeryville, was driving home from a pickup basketball game at UC Berkeley on the evening of on June 12, 2013. He was involved in a minor accident at Stanford Avenue and Market Street in Oakland. He pulled over and got out to talk to the other driver, but the two people in the car shot and killed him.
“The goal of the billboard campaign is to generate new leads and let people feel comfortable with providing information,” said FBI Special Agent Bertram Fairries. According to Michele Ernst, media coordinator for the FBI’s San Francisco branch, Nakano was selected to be on the billboard because the agency believes that many community members know information about who shot him and could be incentivized to come forward. The FBI is also contributing an additional $25,000 to the $100,00 already offered by Nakano’s family in exchange for information that would lead to an arrest.
“Every homicide that occurs in our city is important to resolve,” continued Fairries. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to solving murders. The Nakano case is getting increased media attention because this is a strategy we believe is needed to solve this case. This young man had his whole life ahead of him and was killed needlessly while trying to provide assistance during a routine fender-bender.”
The Department of Justice’s Violence Reduction Network selected Oakland to partner with the FBI because it has the highest crime rate among Bay Area cities. In 2014, Oakland had 37,276 crimes, according to a report compiled by Police Chief Sean Whent. Of these, 3,071 were violent crimes, a category that includes murder, aggravated assault, rape, and arson. Eighty were homicides.
In 2014, the United States Department of Justice’s Violence Reduction Network labeled Oakland the most violent city in California based on the number of violent crimes per capita and selected it to receive support from the federal government, according to Whent’s report. This included adding FBI agents to the OPD’s criminal investigation unit, as well as allowing police officers to use databases and resources provided by the FBI.
According to an FBI report from December 2014, Oakland has 722 sworn officers, which is roughly 17 officers for every 10,000 people. This is the lowest number of officers per 10,000 people for any major United States city with a similar crime rate, according to the report. In that report, the FBI estimated the OPD should have approximately 1,100 officers based on the city’s crime level.
Oakland’s high crime rate, combined with the police department’s understaffing, has led a backlog of cold cases and an increased workload for the homicide investigators. “The OPD has outstanding homicide investigators who have extremely high caseloads relative to their counterparts in other major cities with homicide rates,” said Fairries. “A reasonable homicide case load would be approximately five cases per year per investigator. OPD investigators carry up to four times that caseload.”
“This partnership almost doubles my staff of homicide investigators,” said Lt. Ronald Holmgren of the OPD homicide unit. “Currently I have nine homicide investigators. If I can have 10 FBI agents dedicated to just solving homicide investigations, that’s priceless to me.”
Today, the office space, located next to the current homicide unit, is a large open room with new desks, chairs and cabinets. The FBI agents are currently working from the agency’s FBI Oakland office, a separate building located on 180 Grand Avenue, until the new workspace inside the OPD building is completed in December. Upon completion, there will be new work stations that can access the FBINet, a classified network that communicates “secret information, including investigative case files and intelligence pertaining to national security,” as it’s described in a General Accounting Office report to Congress. The City of Oakland will contribute $63,000 to the project and the FBI will contribute $110,000, in addition to contributing agents who will work full-time with the homicide unit, according to Whent’s report.
“The new space for the OPD and FBI joint task force will be about one and half times bigger than what is currently used to work on homicide cases,” said Officer Johnna Watson, spokesperson for the OPD.
The FBI will not only be assisting with cold cases, like Nakano’s murder, but also with current investigations. “The task force investigates both active and cold cases,” said Fairries. “With regards to cold cases, some of our investigative resources may include media campaigns, advanced forensic analysis on collected evidence, collaboration with subject matter experts throughout the country, cell phone analysis and interviewing.”
The FBI agents can also “write warrants and provide access to different databases, said Holmgren. “They are also here every day, constantly discussing cases, coming up with new leads; all of this is extremely beneficial.”
“I think one of the most important things in solving Oakland’s homicide cases is making the community feel comfortable to provide information and to have trust in the OPD,” said Watson. “The collaboration of the FBI and OPD working together to solve these cases absolutely will be a key part of this.”
Experts say that while advancements in forensic evidence are helpful in cracking cold cases, getting witnesses comfortable enough to come forward with new information is of equal value, and that’s the goal of efforts like the Nakano billboard campaign. “Solving cold cases is not what is depicted on television. Rather, it usually is the investigator or investigators going off on a lead that had not been followed up yet,” said Rob Davis, the Police Foundation’s chief social scientist located in Washington, D.C. The foundation provides research, technical assistance, and communications programs regarding police organizations and Davis is an expert on the science of policing and how law enforcement can best serve communities. “When a former acquaintance, ex-girlfriend, a co-conspirator comes forward, it can be much more helpful to finding the culprit than only relying on DNA samples,” he said.
According to FBI, between June, 2014 and January, 2015 the FBI-OPD collaboration has resulted in the resolution of approximately twice as many Oakland homicide cases as before the FBI stepped in to assist. Prior to the partnership, the OPD was clearing about 30 percent of their homicide cases. Since the partnership they are clearing about 60 percent of them, according to the information provided by Ernst.
Holmgren says the OPD homicide unit is pleased with what the partnership has been able to do since it began, and is hoping it can help solve cases that remain under investigation. “It’s a healthy partnership. It’s about solving homicides, doing what we can for the families,” said Holmgren. “We are aiming to find justice. We cannot bring back their loved ones, but we can help the process for them to reach closure.”