Oakland murders dip to lowest level in 19 years, not everyone impressed

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The number of homicides in Oakland in 2018 dropped to their lowest level — 68 — since 1999, and the total crime level in the city declined 11 percent compared to 2017, according to the city's annual crime data.

Robberies and burglaries decreased too, the latter by 22 percent (although within that umbrella category, commercial burglaries rose by 42 percent.) There also were 12 percent fewer rapes, according to city data. Plus, car burglaries dropped by 25 percent. 

And non-fatal shootings were down, despite what happened on New Year's Eve, when a 6-year-old girl was struck by a bullet during "celebratory gunfire" while she was attending a family party in Oakland. She is expected to be OK.

"It's definitely intentional strategies on our part," Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick told KTVU on Thursday, referring to the city's Ceasefire policing strategy where law enforcement provides lifestyle alternatives to at-risk individuals instead of simply focusing on arrests. "Our focus is to interrupt  the cycle of gun violence." 

Kirkpatrick said that enforcement is only part of the reason for the drop, the other key element is education in trying to get people to "put the guns down." Gentrification is not a reason for the drop, the mayor said at a news conference. 

However, not everyone was impressed with the numbers.

Councilwoman Lynette McElhaney said that Oakland's crime rates in particular neighborhoods don't paint a cheery picture, at least for her district. In downtown and West Oakland, she said, homicides are up, as are assaults and shootings. She also pointed to the July stabbing death of 18-year-old Nia Wilson in Oakland, at the MacArthur Station, but whose homicide is being investigated by BART police. Her death is not included in Oakland's stats. 

"From the street, it feels less safe now than five years ago," McElhaney said.

She and Councilman Larry Reid are now working to recruit the city's first Chief of Violence Prevention and to create a department, budgeted at about $1 million, dedicated to reducing crime even more, and from the perspective of those who have suffered violence. 

Despite the criticism that Oakland could be doing more, it's been proven that homicide numbers have been dropping since Oakland implemented the Ceasefire program. Academic researchers at Northeastern University also gave credit to the policing strategy, the East Bay Express reported in August.

Ceasefire targets mainly young black and Latino men living in Oakland's poorest neighborhoods who make up less than 1 percent of the city's population, according to Oakland police. This population group experiences a high rate of unemployment and housing and food insecurity, is provided with inadequate educational opportunities, and is harmed by other forms of institutional racism. They are also often exposed to violence at an early age and carry a great deal of trauma.

Through Ceasefire, police conduct "call ins," meaning they ask members of that population to sit down, usually in a church or community center, and talk about the potential consequences of engaging in street warfare. And they provide them referrals and services to break the cycle of violence, Kirkpatrick said. 

When the program started seven years ago, there were zero groups and six individuals who received these one-on-one meetings with a police officer or community member, who tried to give that at-risk person a "message of caring, chance and choice," the city website states. Last year, there were 156 groups and 605 individuals who participated.

Ceasefire was fully implemented in 2013 under Mayor Jean Quan. Measure Z, the city's parcel tax to fund violence reduction strategies both inside and outside the police department, is used to pay for Ceasefire.

Ceasefire Oakland works in collaboration with several local nonprofit groups as well as the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College, which offers tips on best practices. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf noted that “making Oakland a safe city has been a community-led movement.”

At a news conference on Thursday, Schaaf also pointed out that the trends "represent an unprecedented reduction in homicides and shooting injuries combined." 

While the total number of crimes dropped citywide, there were three large categories that did increase from the year before: Violent crime went up 1 percent, aggravated assault went up 5 percent and arson rose by 26 percent, according to the city's data. 

Major fires have broken out at construction sites throughout the East Bay over the last several years. In November, police and the ATF arrested 45-year-old Dustin Bellinger on suspicion of setting at least one of the arson fires.

Kirkpatrick noted that while the percentage increase seems high, the number of raw data on arsons is low. There were 191 arsons documented in 2018.

Despite this year's successes, the Oakland Police Department remains under federal oversight since 2003 because of the Riders scandal, in which rogue officers known as “Riders” were accused of beating up and planting drugs on West Oakland residents.