Oakland police chief addresses violence as homicides climb to 127

Oakland's police chief spoke publicly on Tuesday morning asking for more officers following a recent wave of violence in the city, where 127 homicides have occurred so far this year compared to 74 homicides in 2019 before the pandemic. 

Chief LeRonne Armstrong has long asked for more police officers and said the current staff of 677 was not adequate. 

"That is  the smallest staff that we've had in several years," Armstrong said at a news conference. "It is it wholly lower than the staffing we had at this same time last year where we had 740 officers." 

His plea came a day after Mayor Libby Schaaf urged the same thing, and after two high-profile homicides occurred over the weekend. 

Eric Davis, a 28-year-old man was killed when he confronted a car burglar near Lake Merritt on Sunday. Police said a passenger in a black Toyota RAV4 shot Davis. 

"I'm devastated because someone was trying to help out," said Sarah Rothman of Oakland. She says Oakland police told her Davis was shot after apparently trying to protect her Acura MDX from being targeted by the burglars.

"The fact that he was trying to be a good person, be a good neighbor and then people were violent and took his life," Rothman said. "It's very, very upsetting."

Chief Armstrong announced a $10,000 reward is being offered in the case. 

The day before, Kevin Nishita, a security guard protecting a KRON 4 news crew, died from his injuries after he was shot the day before Thanksgiving while on assignment. At the news conference, Armstrong said "multiple rounds" were fired at Nishita, indicating this wasn't an accidental shooting. 

"He was loved by many, loved by officers as well as colleagues that he worked with," Armstrong said. He added, "To our news crews that cover us in the city of Oakland, we're going to do everything we can to continue to make Oakland a safe place for you to cover news."

In terms of strategy, Armstrong said that he has been deploying tactical units into smaller teams around the city believed to be the prime locations, such as business districts and cannabis dispensaries, where police believe that these "caravan robberies" have occurred. 

"Those will be areas we have higher concentration of our specially trained officers," Armstrong said. "What they bring is extensive training in the use of other tactical options, like less lethal options." 

On Monday, Schaaf noted that the number of police officers in Oakland is now one officer below the minimum required for the city to access funds from a parcel tax.

The mayor says she plans to submit a revised police hiring plan to the city council, which could include another police academy.

"We have to accept that the interruption in our hiring processes and the higher rates of attrition are things that we have to plan for now," Schaaf said. "We can't keep our head in the sand."

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Sheng Thao, who is running for mayor, told KTVU in an interview on Monday night, that the city needs to bring back the Ceasefire program - a gang and gun violence intervention program that had had success in the past. It was dismantled during the pandemic. 

Last December, she said the city administrator cut the program "without coming to the city council for advice." 

Meanwhile, she said, it's the "Ceasefire are people who work with the community to get violent players to put down their guns." 

But at the news conference, Armstrong said that the Ceasefire program never ended. 

"The Ceasefire strategy actually never stopped," Armstrong said. "It was impacted by COVID. And we weren't able to do the things that we had done traditionally. But we are we have been for several us fully implementing the Ceasefire strategy."

Armstrong said that the department added an additional team in the month of November with an additional six officers to the unit. 

"So our Ceasefire unit is up and running, and is focused on those involved in violence group and gang violence," he said. 

In 2019, the Giffords Law Center cited Oakland's Ceasefire program as a national model, cutting the city's homicides from a high of 128 in 2012 to 68 in 2018. 

The program is a blend of analyzing the data and violent trends, identifying the people at the highest risk of engaging in serious violence and intervening with in-person communication and "genuine" offers of help. Community organizations were brought in to help, alongside law enforcement officers to provide educational mentoring, career support and other social services. 

The Ceasefire analysis at the time showed that only 400 people—just 0.1% of Oakland’s total population—were at the highest risk for engaging in serious violence at any given time, and it was those people who program leaders focused on.

In a twist of irony, the retired captain who once led that successful program, Ersie Joyner, was shot during a robbery at a gas station in October in Oakland. He is still recovering from his wounds. 

KTVU's Lisa Fernandez contributed to this report.