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Amid Surge in Violent Crime, Oakland Mayor Calls for a Federal Health Emergency

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An older man in a blue suit and tie and an older woman in a red jacket talk to reporters on the street outside of a church.
US Sen. Alex Padilla and US Rep. Barbara Lee speak to reporters outside First AME Church in Oakland on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, after meeting with Mayor Libby Schaaf and community leaders about violence prevention amid a rash of shootings in the East Bay city. (Courtesy of Edgar Rodriguez)

A rash of gun violence in Oakland should be treated as a public health crisis so the city can receive federal aid to support its violence prevention work, Mayor Libby Schaaf said Wednesday.

After meeting with U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, Oakland Congressmember Barbara Lee and community leaders to discuss the problem, Schaaf praised the idea of declaring a federal health emergency to bolster Medi-Cal reimbursements for violence prevention initiatives.

"The federal government needs ... to declare a health emergency so that we can use health funding to do the deep violence prevention and intervention work that we know is needed, particularly as we are seeing more and more young people not only be the victims of crime but be the perpetrators of crime," Schaaf said.

The discussion at First AME Church in Oakland’s Mosswood neighborhood was not open to the media. But Padilla told reporters afterward that it was a timely discussion, given a recent gang-related shooting on September 28 that wounded six people at a school complex in East Oakland and another shooting near UC Berkeley on October 8 that left one man dead and three others injured.

After a decade where homicides were down to a half-century low in the 2010s, the whole Bay Area saw an increase in violence since the pandemic began in 2020. Oakland police investigated 134 homicides in 2021 — the most since 2012 — and already this year authorities have reported 103 homicides.

Last month, Police Chief LeRonne L. Armstrong said group and gang violence was the predominant driver of crimes in the city. He added that officers have recovered an astounding number of firearms: 1,132 so far, compared to nearly 1,200 last year, many of which are "ghost guns," which are untraceable.

Padilla said the federal Safer Communities Act, signed into law in June, provides hundreds of millions of dollars for community-based violence prevention initiatives like the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland Program, or MACRO, which was modeled after the Eugene, Oregon, Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) model, widely recognized as a non-law enforcement mobile crisis intervention program that has seen significant success over the last 31 years.

The six-month-old MACRO program sends a team of crisis intervention specialists to respond to nonviolent 911 calls, helping to deescalate crises without police intervention, thereby reducing police responses to behavioral health issues so they can focus on crime instead, at a time when the OPD has been understaffed and overwhelmed since the start of the pandemic. The city is testing the program for 18 months, limiting service to just East and West Oakland between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., with three teams on two shifts.

Padilla thinks federal dollars can increase staff and expand hours and area of coverage.

“That’s the objective: not just trying to find those new solutions, new initiatives but looking at what has been proven, that can have a bigger impact if we’re able to scale up with more resources, hiring more teams to do the work on the ground,” he said.

Barbara Lee later told reporters that the closed-door conversation delved into systemic racism as one major root cause of crimes, given that a majority of victims of gun violence are Black and brown people from under-resourced communities and lower-income neighborhoods where gang violence often takes root. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, she said she’s been working to boost federal funding for grassroots violence prevention programs that employ young people as “violence interrupters.”

“Our young people deserve investments in education, jobs, housing, mental health, social and racial justice efforts and more to ensure the quality of life they deserve,” she said.

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