Oakland P.D. homicide investigator shares challenges and how she's building trust

Officer Nicole Allen took us back to the scene of one of her cases. "Received a call just after 6 a.m. on August 18 of this year, a female down in the street," said Allen, as she walked the street, looking for any clues or tips that might lead to answers in the woman’s death.

We spent a day with the Oakland police homicide investigator as the department and the city grapple with another deadly year. For the third straight year, the city marked a grim milestone: more than 100 murders. Police have investigated 111 homicides so far. The latest crime on November 14, when a man was shot and killed on 90th Avenue near B street. "It’s astronomical, it’s really sad that’s where we’re at in the city," said Allen. "It’s difficult; it’s difficult as a community to kind of sit with that." 

Oakland police chief LeRonne Armstong recently extended a plan to combat gun violence, through the end of the year, in addition to high visibility patrols during the holiday season. He announced the initial plan in September after eight people were killed in a seven-day period. The plan includes adding officers permanently to its criminal investigations division. Staffing remains an ongoing issue Allen says. The department currently has 15 homicide investigators. Each investigator receives an average of 8 to 10 cases per year, a load that grows with each unsolved crime in the city. "It’s difficult, obviously, Oakland is a very busy city," said Allen. "The less officers obviously means more on the officer that are here, the same goes for investigations, especially for homicide."

Activists have been critical of the approach and the spending. They say the focus should be more on prevention and relationships in the community. Officer Allen says fostering those relationships is her priority, especially with those who are experiencing loss. "We’re dealing with people who’ve lost loved ones, it’s a delicate situation, as it is, and you’re coming in as an investigator, and have to ask difficult questions," said Allen.  "When you humanize and show compassion and understanding it goes a long way." 

In addition to following leads on her several cases, Officer Allen says she takes calls from family members of victims regularly. "They just want to make sure their loved one isn’t forgotten and make sure their case isn’t going to be swept under the rug," said Allen. "I want them to know that would not be the case, that’s not something we would do, we investigate every case to the fullest extent." 

In Oakland, a number of homicide cases remain unsolved. Officer Allen explains these investigations take time, unlike what you may see on TV or in the movies. Still, it can be frustrating for people like Sheri Roberson, whose daughter’s father was killed last year, no arrests have been made. "There’s been no closure, no justice, as far as we know, he’s just not here," said Roberson, in an interview last year. "We don’t know why, we don’t know who, we don’t know and that’s just hard." 

Allen says she empathizes with people like Roberson and says what drives her is being able to clear cases and give these families some small sense of justice. "It’s what we do this work for; every case that we get, we go in thinking I’m going to solve this case, we’re going to get justice for this family," said Allen. "It’s what we strive for." 

Allen says each murder weighs heavily on her and the challenge is finding a balance at home, especially when she’s with her two sons at home. "They know it takes me away from home a lot and not always able to go to their different events or volunteer at their school," said Allen. "I have a lot going on. They kind of know and understand, I have a demanding job." 

Like her police chief and people who live in Oakland, Allen is fed up with the amount of violence in the city. She said it will take everyone to build a safer community. "The city of Oakland is so much more than we’re seeing in the media, and it’s a small group of people that are committing these crimes in the city," said Allen. "I think we need to continue to come together to foster relationships and build trust."