OAKLAND, Calif. - As homicides surge in Oakland and city officials debate whether to hire more officers a key question lingers: Do more police reduce crime and are collateral consequences worth the benefits of having more officers on the street?
Law enforcement advocates say the evidence that police reduce crime is unequivocal. Anti-police activists, meanwhile, say the over-policing of communities of color sows distrust and short-term reductions in violence fail to address its structural causes.
It’s a debate that’s intensified in cities like Oakland in the last two years. Public support swelled for so-called efforts to "defund the police" after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. But that tide gave way to calls to increase police staffing following two years of sharp increases in violence. As of Monday, there have been 129 homicides in Oakland – a two-thirds increase from two years ago.
"The investment of preventing crime from happening, I think that’s what’s really key – it’s just not running from one call to another," Oakland police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said in an interview with KTVU on Monday.
The Oakland City Council will take up Mayor Libby Schaaf’s proposal to hire 60 more officers during a special session on Tuesday morning – a proposal that would effectively return the city’s force to where it stood before the Floyd’s killing and the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Schaaf’s plan was followed by a sharp rebuke from the Oakland activist community.
"We can’t make the same mistakes we made in the past," said longtime city activist Cat Brooks. "We cannot throw more good money after failed policy solutions."
Researchers have long tried to tackle the question about whether more police translate to safer communities. Benjamin Hansen is an economics professor at the University of Oregon who specializes in researching crime.
He co-authored a recent study that found both sides in the debate may be correct.
"We found that police reduced homicides overall and in the absolute counts that those reductions in homicides were roughly split between white and black civilians," Hansen said.
He said those homicide reductions are significantly larger per-capita in communities of color.
But at the same time, Hansen said he and his colleagues’ looked at communities with more police and found other troubling data.
"When we looked at arrest patterns for more minor crimes – what we might consider quality of life arrests – things like noise violations, things like possession of marijuana, we saw there was a large increase in those arrests," he said.
The effect, he said, erodes the sense of police legitimacy in the very communities police are tasked with protecting. And more distrust of the police makes it harder to reduce violence in the long-term.
The chief said he’s aware of challenges his city faces with building trust in the community. He said community-based violence reduction strategies like Ceasefire and the city’s Department of Violence Prevention aim to partner with neighborhoods and residents – not over-police them.
"When you have high trust in community, community member share information," he said. "They are willing to participate in investigations because we all have this agreement that we have to work together in order to achieve safety."
Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky