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'This Is a Battle': Oakland City Leaders Discuss Deadly Crime Surge

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A police car sits in the middle of a cordoned off street, a yellow tape in the foreground with "crime scene do not cross" written on it.
Oakland has seen an unprecedented surge in violent crime and shootings over the last two years as residents and officials struggle to come to grips with the situation. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

People in Oakland are hurting. They've lost loved ones. They've seen people shot and killed. After a decade where homicides were down to a half-century low in the 2010s, the pandemic hit, and the whole Bay Area has seen an increase in violence. In Oakland, homicides were up more than 50% in 2021, with more than 100 murders for the first time in a decade. This year's even worse.

On Wednesday, a 60-year-old man was gunned down near DeFremery Park in West Oakland, marking the city’s 100th homicide of the year. The shooting comes amid a surge of shocking, violent incidents in recent weeks, including two Berkeley High School students — and brothers — killed at a birthday party; six adults shot at an Oakland school; two men killed in front of their mosque; and one person killed, and another injured, during a midday shooting outside City Hall, where a City Council meeting was in session.

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“What we're facing is … an ugly, perfect storm of conditions that all of urban America is facing,” said Guillermo Cespedes, Oakland’s violence prevention chief, who joined Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong on KQED’s Forum this week.

Schaaf, who ends her tenure as mayor this year after serving two terms, lamented the alarming increase in bloodshed in her city. 

"It's just heartbreaking, because it really felt like Oakland had turned the corner by utilizing Ceasefire," said Schaaf, referring to Operation Ceasefire, a multipronged approach to reducing street violence through direct interventions and access to city services. "That very comprehensive kind of carrot-and-stick approach of Ceasefire had really created what many people called the Oakland Miracle. We were recognized nationally as having one of the most dramatic and sustained reductions in gun violence that any city (has) ever achieved. And that all went out the window with COVID."

Wave of violence

In fact, homicides were at a 50-year low in the Bay Area throughout much of the 2010s. But the pandemic ushered in a new wave of violence across the region and the country, one that has hit Oakland particularly hard and has yet to recede. Homicides in the city were up more than 50% in 2021, when the number of murders peaked at 100 for the first time in a decade.

Schaaf attributed the alarming rise to various factors, including the slowdown of the court system; gang recruitment of "younger and younger juveniles who get treated quite differently in our court system," which, she adds "has not yet adjusted to our new reality"; and the dramatic decrease in police staffing as a result of "exhaustion over COVID and the defund sentiment in Oakland" that, she said, has affected the enforcement of Ceasefire.

"And I think we also have to address the fact that all of us are left a little bit vulnerable mental health-wise since the pandemic," added Cespedes. "Arguments that before would be settled with words now may take a fistfight or even a gunfight."

Many of the Oakland residents who called in to Forum conveyed a sense of fear and exasperation, some angrily accusing city leaders and law enforcement of failing to stem the violence. 

'Sick and tired of being sick and tired'

"I'm calling because I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired," said one caller, who introduced herself as Dee, urging officials to turn their words into actions. 

"I'm a taxpaying citizen in Oakland. My kid, I can't even let her go outside. How can I be in a city where I can't even drive down the street without the fear of somebody putting a gun to my head?" Dee said.

Armstrong, the police chief, said much of the violence could be attributed to “homegrown groups and gangs from Oakland." 

"But we have, as of late, experienced a lot of violence related to San Francisco gangs and groups — from as far as Antioch, Vallejo — that have come over to Oakland and committed several violent acts," he said. Armstrong also noted the influence of human trafficking, adding that his department was working closely with the district attorney and the FBI on dealing with the issue.

“Human trafficking not only impacts Oakland but the entire Western region,” said Armstrong. “We know that there are those that come to Oakland specifically to traffic.” 

Human trafficking — the buying and selling of people for sex or labor — has been one of the drivers of gang violence that Oakland has been trying to combat with various initiatives.

Too many guns

But the biggest issue that all three city leaders touched on was the proliferation of guns.

“The number of households that bought guns increased by 18% during the pandemic. ... More people, more guns," said Cespedes. "This is a battle that Oakland is waging, and we need help." 

Armstrong also noted the increase in "ghost guns," a term for firearms that can be easily constructed from kits, and that are untraceable.

"I mean, just yesterday, we recovered four of those guns from one individual," he said, adding that the OPD has "already recovered over 1,150 firearms so far this year, which is a 34% increase compared to last year," saying that a significant number of these firearms have been ghost guns.

"While this spike in Oakland has been historic for us, believe it or not, it matches the national average," Schaaf said, faulting federal leaders for failing to stop the proliferation of firearms. "We have never seen so many illegal guns on our streets and the failure of the federal government to ban assault weapons, as well as the equipment that turns regular guns into assault weapons, (and) to invest adequately in mental health, conflict resolution, the mental state of people, especially our young people. … These are failures at the federal level."

An emergency medicine resident physician named Henry at Highland Hospital in Oakland wrote in, “I've seen a shocking increase in nonfatal violence, gunshot wounds, stabbings, assaults. Many of these injuries are to people who are simply caught in the crossfire.” 

Many callers seemed unconvinced that police and local leaders were taking the appropriate steps to rein in a situation they described as spiraling out of control. 

'How people are feeling right now'

Another caller, Marisol, said her East Oakland neighborhood, despite having among the highest number of shootings in the city, is generally neglected by police, adding that she doesn’t see the "impact of any of the dollars in our communities." 

Schaaf acknowledged that “the grief and trauma that people are experiencing right now is at an all-time high."

"We can talk about what we've done, we can also even talk about data that shows impact ... but that does not in any way take away from the importance of that sentiment of how people are feeling right now," she said.

Schaaf pledged to improve communication with the public about efforts the city is making to address violent crime, while also aiming to make better use of available crime-fighting technology, like license plate readers, and to strengthen coordination efforts among various city agencies and community groups. 

"I think we as a city need to do a much better job of communicating what we are doing," she said. "We recently did a survey of Oakland residents and I was surprised to see that that was one of the top responses that would make people feel like the city of Oakland was going in a good direction: simply knowing more about what city government is doing." 

She added, “I do always think that we've got to have the long view. As much as this moment feels so unsettling, to continue to invest in our children, to teach them the social and emotional skills that they need to navigate these difficult times with a sense of safety, with a sense of hope for their future."

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