Despite the common opinion that violence in Oakland is spiking and out of control, data for the past year gives the city cause to celebrate for the first time in nearly a decade: Oakland experienced a 30 percent decrease in homicides in 2013 compared to the previous year, with nearly 40 fewer killings. This marks the lowest homicide count in Oakland since 2004.
Violent crime is down significantly throughout the country and has been trending downward for a few years. Oakland had been an exception, until last year. Now, it joins cities like Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C. and neighboring Richmond among the ranks of those with sharp decreases in homicides.
Yet only six months ago, Oakland was on target for an increase in violent crime. That being said, the reductions that occurred over the last six months were astronomical. The cause of the drop in violence is widely debated, but it’s no coincidence that six months ago the city began the process to revamp its main violence reduction strategy, Oakland CeaseFire. A re-commitment by the police department, service providers and community leaders to focus on the most violent groups and individuals has yielded huge fruit.
The strategy is not complex, but it works: identify the most violent groups and individuals in the city, communicate directly to them that the violence must stop, offer services and supports, and follow up with targeted enforcement if the violence continues. Though some argue that CeaseFire has had mixed results in Oakland and around the country, in places where the strategy was properly implemented and adhered to, the result is most often a successful reduction of violent crime.
Oakland and its police department have very limited resources. So the city made a good, yet courageous decision by prioritizing gun violence above all else – and it worked. When Interim Police Chief Sean Whent announced that gun violence was his main priority and CeaseFire was his main strategy to address it, he was criticized by some and applauded by others.
While there is reason to celebrate, we are nowhere close to victory. One murder anywhere is too much. Violence is still a crisis in America and especially in Black neighborhoods. There must be far more resources invested in the most violent communities in America, which not coincidentally are also some of the most impoverished.
I have worked in the fields of criminal justice, youth development, and violence prevention for the past 17 years. I have spent most of that time pointing out how very horrible violence is and how we need to recognize the crisis we are confronting. But it is also important to celebrate successes and recognize progress.
Although murders are down significantly in Oakland and the city rightfully has focused on gun violence, that doesn’t mean crime overall is down. Robberies in Oakland remain a huge problem. The city had the dubious distinction of being the robbery capital last year, with the highest per capita robbery rate.
Robberies affect more people than murders. And in Oakland, robberies are also affecting more affluent residents. Therefore, it may be more politically expedient to focus on robberies. But the city did the right thing and focused on what’s most important – human life.
Now Oakland needs the resources to maintain and even increase the efforts of CeaseFire, while also working to reduce all crime.
In addition to the misconception that violence is rising in Oakland, most people also assume youth are to blame. Despite common assumptions, juvenile crime is plummeting. According to Department of Justice statistics, in the past 10 years there has been a 32 percent decline in juvenile crime in California.
Over the past six years, there has been more than a 50 percent reduction in the number of juvenile filings in Alameda County. Meaning, since 2007, there has been a decline, by more than half, of the number of youth charged with juvenile offenses in the county.
According to data reported to the State Attorney General’s Office, only 10 percent of all felony arrests made by the Oakland Police Department in 2012 were of juveniles. The numbers are similar in most big cities around the country. But even more surprising in Oakland, is that the average age of a homicide suspect in the city over the past two years has been 30 years old.
Youth violence is not the problem in Oakland. With juvenile crime dropping, this is a sign that crime and violence in the future will only further decline.
So there is much to celebrate in the New Year. Crime reduction strategies are working, our communities are safer, and our youth are better.
David Muhammad is the CEO of Solutions, Inc, consulting firm. He is the former Chief Probation Officer of Alameda County Probation and the former Deputy Commissioner of New York City Probation.
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