On a recent morning, an ex-convict named Debonaire Dobbz sat shackled to a chair in an Oakland courtroom, charged with murder in a shooting a year ago.
"This is not a whodunit. This is not a whodunit case--that’s the tragic element of this," says Tim Murphy, the public defender representing Dobbz. He says a contractor renovating a house in East Oakland gave Dobbz a shotgun and some money and told him to keep an eye on the property. One night, Murphy says, Dobbz spotted a man who appeared to be stealing from the house.
"And a confrontation ensued, wherein my client discharged a shotgun, and shooting the individual at close range in the stomach. ..." Murphy trails off. The individual shot during the confrontation was Lonnie Turbin, 35, the older brother of Seattle Seahawks running back Robert Turbin. Dobbz has pleaded not guilty and is due back in court next month.
The story is tragic--one of Oakland's 130-plus cases last year in which someone was shot, beaten, or stabbed to death (or, in one case, deliberately run over by a driver.)
It's also unusual. That's because it's among the relatively few times police "cleared" one of last year's homicide cases (by the state Department of Justice definition, a case is cleared when a suspect is arrested and charged). The Oakland Police Department says it has cleared 28 percent of last year's homicides. By comparison, the statewide average in 2010, the most recent year for which numbers are available, was 64 percent.
(Key: Green markers: 2012 homicides "cleared" by police. Red markers: unsolved killings. Yellow markers: justified homicides. Blue marker: Officer-involved shooting, ruled justified. Click on markers for details of each case. Link: Oakland Homicides 2012: Cleared Cases)
Why is Oakland's rate so low?
Oakland Police Capt. Johnny Davis says years of budget cuts have hurt the department’s ability to solve crimes. He says investigators are swamped, juggling an average of 20 cases a year. "There’s been studies that suggest an investigator should have no more than 5 cases in a year," Davis says.
The department's forensics lab is also overwhelmed, with a reported backlog of thousands of forensic testing requests, including many from homicide cases. But Davis says the Number One factor stopping investigators from solving homicides ... is a lack of cooperation from witnesses in the community.
"The biggest challenge that we have is a lot of people who know what actually happened out there, and know these individuals because they’re in their communities, are failing to come forward or are afraid to come forward for some reason," Davis says.
Jakada Imani of Oakland's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights says that reason shouldn't be a mystery. Many people in the community distrust the police, he says, because they've had bad experiences with officers.
"You can’t come into a home and pull out guns on grandmoms, and then expect people to help you," Imani says. "You can’t show up on the scene of a traumatic incident and treat the young people who were witnesses and victims as if they are perpetrators."
UC-Berkeley Criminal Justice scholar Barry Krisberg says police will continue to face major challenges solving crimes until they build a better relationship with residents, investigators will face major challenges.
"Most violent crimes are solved when citizens come forward and tell the police what they know," Krisberg says. "And that’s why the relationship between the police and the community is so critical. The community has to trust the police; they have to feel like they and the police are on the same side."
Krisberg also says Oakland's low homicide clearance rate erodes confidence the police can do their jobs."People expect that when serious crimes occur, that the police are gonna find the bad guys, and take 'em in custody," he says.
Jakada Imani says that when that doesn’t happen, residents fear the consequences if they come forward.
"If the legal system is uncertain, but I believe that street justice is certain, then we have a problem," he says.
* * *
Statistical note: The Oakland Police Department reported five justified homicides in 2012, a determination made jointly by police and the Alameda County district attorney's office. Those cases included one officer-involved shooting and four cases that involved self-defense or citizens who interceded to stop a crime in progress.
Oakland's 2012 homicide cases: Were arrests made?