A team of university researchers released data in late July suggesting that Operation Ceasefire, Oakland’s primary initiative to reduce gun violence, is working. The study links a roughly 30 percent drop in gun-related homicides since 2013 to Ceasefire.
The Ceasefire program originated in Boston and was fully implemented in Oakland in 2013. It uses data to identify who is most at-risk of either committing–or becoming a victim of–a gun-related homicide, and provides those people with social support and resources meant to reduce their risk of being involved in violence. Oakland’s version of Ceasefire was funded by Measure Z, a 2014 ballot initiative focused on violence reduction.
Ceasefire also includes a new approach to policing that focuses on lowering the total number of arrests for less serious offenses, and instead focusing law enforcement primarily on violent crime. Jointly run by community activists, city officials, police, social workers and community members, Ceasefire’s goal is to reduce gang-related shootings and improve the historically fraught relationship between community members and the police.
“In the past, law enforcement had an ‘us versus them’ mentality,” said Oakland Police Captain Ersie Joyner, who heads up Ceasefire for the department. “We were an occupying army in the community. That is no longer the case. Now our philosophy is we want to be a part of the community, not apart from it.”
Joyner added that this changed mentality has affected every aspect of the way his officers are trained. “I don’t call the Ceasefire participants we’re working with ‘suspects’ or ‘targets,’” he said. “I call them ‘clients.’ May sound cliché, but I think this is key. We used to be proud of how many guns or people we get off the street. Now I look at high numbers of arrests as a failure.”
“Our Ceasefire strategy is about changing behavior, not arresting our way out of the problem,” said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.
Conducted by a team of researchers from Northeastern University and Rutgers University, and led by criminologist Anthony Braga, the five-year study analyzing the effectiveness of Ceasefire compared Oakland to twelve other California cities in order to control for broader trends, including an overall drop in violent crime across California and changing population demographics within Oakland. Only two other cities—San Francisco and Stockton—showed similar reductions in gun-related homicides during the same period.
In addition to linking Ceasefire to a 31 percent drop in gun-related homicides since 2013, the study also found that it was associated with a 20 percent reduction in shootings in “treated” Ceasefire neighborhoods relative to surrounding “untreated” census tracts. Researchers viewed this as proof that gun-related violence was not simply being displaced to surrounding areas.
Overall, there has been a 48 percent drop in gun violence in Oakland in the past half-decade. In 2011, there were 93 gun homicides in Oakland and 617 nonfatal gun-related assaults, according to the study. In 2017, there were 63 homicides and 277 nonfatal gun assaults.
“The city of Oakland deserves credit for the investments they’ve made to do this important work and to sustain it,” said Braga, the head of the research team that conducted the study. “They’ve put the structures in place to ensure its success, and a lot of other cities are now visiting Oakland to learn how to do it.”
“I would attribute the success of Ceasefire to the laser focus of what we’re trying to do,” said Joyner. “When you’re being strategic and transparent about what you do and how you do it, you gain trust.”
David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and a key consultant to Ceasefire, says there is often a significant misunderstanding in Oakland about what exactly the group’s strategy is. He says the easiest way to understand Ceasefire is to break it down into four components.
The first is using data to identify exactly which people in Oakland are most likely to fatally use a gun or get killed by one. This is key, he says, because according to the study, less than 1 percent of the population has been associated with two-thirds of the city’s gun violence. These are the people Ceasefire tries to reach.
“A lot of time was spent on this step,” said Muhammad. “Eighteen months of research allowed researchers to identify approximately 300 people were who were, in street terms, ‘hot.’ These were mostly men between the ages of 18 and 35 who had been shot before or had close friends who had been shot.”
Once the participants were identified, Muhammad calls part two of the strategy “direct and respectful communications.” Police officers conduct “call-ins,” a meeting with each of these young men, often at a church or community center, where officers communicate the dangers associated with street conflicts. Call-ins are not voluntary–parole officers inform their parolees that they must comply.
“They are told, ‘We care about you. You have our attention. And we’re going to do everything we can to keep you alive and keep our community safe, too,’” Muhammad said.
Officers then assign participants a “life coach,” a formerly incarcerated and often once gang-affiliated individual who has done time and has been hired to befriend and mentor participants, and also help connect them with housing and educational services. As an incentive, officers reward participants with a $100 gift card if they contact their life coaches within 24 hours of the call-in. This is part three of the strategy, Muhammad said: Make sure participants get the support they need to stay focused and on the right path.
“Then part four of the strategy is focused enforcement,” said Muhammad, referring to a shift in the way officers are trained to address crime. This piece, he said, is the least understood by the community and the most controversial.
“This step is about reducing the total number of enforcements. It’s about encouraging overworked officers to stop making those small-time arrests, but to instead focus their limited resources on gun violence. Don’t arrest these guys for drug possession. Focus on keeping them alive,” Muhammad said.
When asked what he believes to be the greatest obstacle to reducing the number of homicides in Oakland, Muhammad sighed. “I could speak for hours on this subject, but I think it can be summarized like this: The people who need the police most trust them the least. This is a community that is over-policed and under-protected. We need to find a way to earn that trust back,” he said.
But not all Oaklanders think Ceasefire is working as well as it could—including Oakland resident Deana White, who worked on violence reduction under Measure Y, a city initiative that preceded the implementation of Ceasefire. Measure Y, which provided funds for violence prevention programs for at-risk youth, and for more police officers in all Oakland neighborhoods, expired in 2014. It’s successor, Measure Z, was approved by voters that November. It provided approximately $25 million annually for ten years for violence prevention programs, including Ceasefire.
Anti-violence work under Measure Y was more segmented and not part of a larger citywide strategy, but White said it had the advantage of working with already-existing local groups.
“Back then, we had people and groups that were already doing the work in the community, laying the groundwork for healing and hope,” White said, noting the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Nonviolence and Victory Outreach as key organizations doing that work.
“The initial contact with an individual in crisis was a peer that cared,” White continued. “But I really feel that the city deviated away from that model when they hired outside groups to do street outreach instead of relying on community volunteers who were already known and trusted by the community.”
While researchers, police and city officials, and community members agreed that the drop in homicides in Oakland over the past half-decade is encouraging, study participants indicated that they feel there is still a great deal of work that still needs to be done to keep Oakland safe.
According to the report, participants in Braga’s study “Took care to express concern about [Ceasefire’s] sustainability given deep entrenched, underlying social conditions highly correlated with urban violence.” In other words, they believe that their community needs to do a better job of addressing the root causes of why people commit crimes.
Additionally, participants spoke of the importance of continuing to improve the way police officers treat community members. “They were insistent that OPD police leadership ensure that rank-and-file officers treat citizens with dignity and respect during routine encounters,” the study concluded.
And while the mayor’s office celebrated the results of the study, Schaaf said there is more work to be done. “Until every child in every neighborhood feels the security of living in a safe community,” Schaaf said, “we will continue to improve and work on holistic strategies like Ceasefire to make Oakland safer.”