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Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3) speaks to the audience at the Oakland City Council meeting.

Oakland city council prioritizes violence prevention with new chief

on October 18, 2019

The Oakland City Council voted earlier this month to move forward with a new plan for preventing violence in Oakland.

The approved plan, outlined in a report by Oakland-based research and advocacy group Urban Strategies Council (USC), recommends strategies for addressing gun violence, domestic violence, and human trafficking. The report’s release in September and the council’s vote to adopt it are the latest developments in the city’s ongoing efforts to establish the new Department of Violence Prevention (DVP), approved by the council two years ago. At the time, supporters said the new unit was necessary to improve Oakland’s violence prevention efforts, but critics said it would fail without a concrete strategy. The USC report came in response to such criticism.

Last year, City Administrator Sabrina Landreth contracted with USC to solicit community input on the city’s violence prevention needs.

Community members and local nonprofits helped conduct surveys and focus groups with over 500 Oakland residents. At a leadership summit held last June at the Oakland Marriott, over 300 members of the public participated in workshops in which they identified and proposed violence prevention strategies.

Findings from the surveys, focus groups and summit appear in the report approved by the city council, “Rethinking Violence Prevention in Oakland, CA – From the Voices of the People Most Impacted.”

This latest development follows the start of Oakland’s first permanent Chief of Violence Prevention, Guillermo Cespedes. Cespedes, who has decades of experience combating violence, has worked to fight gang violence in Los Angeles and helped launch a U.S. government-funded violence prevention program in Honduras. In September, he began leading the DVP.

“The report was meant to inform the new chief,” said Peter Kim, who served as interim Chief of Violence Prevention until last month. “But also to show where things need to be strengthened, created, and what the community is seeing as their needs.”

Through the surveys, focus groups and workshops, community members emphasized the top forms of violence listed in the report, said Kim, now manager of violence prevention program Oakland Unite.

Gun violence has traditionally been the “largest priority due to its impact,” he said.

Although gun violence has steadily declined over the last five years, said Kim, Oakland still has some of the highest numbers of fatal and non-fatal shootings among California cities, with 63 and 277 incidents, respectively, in 2017.

But community input also helped show that “violence is not a singular form—violence that occurs in the home and in trafficking needs more focus,” said Kim, who oversaw the research process as interim chief.

Oakland residents speak to councilmembers about public safety.
Oakland residents speak to councilmembers about public safety.

Recommendations in the report include focusing on specific streets and neighborhoods, training public school teachers how to report and help address domestic violence, and developing a rescue app for victims of sexual violence.

Specific recommendations for the new chief include holding neighborhood meetings to connect residents with staff in the new department, improving coordination between public safety agencies, and using social media to raise awareness and provide reliable updates on community violence.

Cespedes must report on the department’s proposed plan of action to the city council within six months of his hiring, according to the motion approved by the council to create the DVP.

“This work is incredibly important,” said Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3).

“The ongoing efforts and advocacy continue as we innovate to allow community voices to lead us in how we make our city safe,” she said.

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