OAKLAND — Jaunnicia Milton saw her father die last July, Oakland’s 45th homicide of 2001. A year later, the 7-year-old girl watched a man shoot her mother at point blank range, the 64th murder of 2002.
Oakland, which had still another murder Tuesday, its 65th, is one of many American cities grappling with a bounce in homicides not seen since the bad old days of the 1990s, as unemployment among young black men has risen with the rollercoaster economy.
In response, Mayor Jerry Brown asked the City Council on Tuesday to raise taxes by $63.5 million over five years to add 100 officers to Oakland’s force of 750.
His proposal would raise taxes from 7.5 to 8 percent on hotel stays, parking, and utilities including electricity, gas and alternate fuels, as well as telephone and cable television.
Brown said Tuesday he expected some opposition, but said a majority on the council agrees on his response to the murders, which he blamed on a range of social ills — and a relatively small police department.
“It’s the economy, we don’t pay enough money to people working in unskilled jobs, there are lots of reasons, but no excuses,” Brown said before the meeting. “The simple fact of the matter is, Oakland is underpoliced.”
The streets have made an orphan of Jaunnicia, who was shot in the leg Sunday evening when a gunman walked up to their parked car and killed her mother with a volley of bullets.
“When her father died, she had her mother and other family members to help her get through it,” Tequila Bagwell, the first grader’s aunt, told the Oakland Tribune. “We have no idea how she’s going to handle this.”
Two weeks ago, Brown joined more than 4,000 people demanding an end to the violence in a march to City Hall.
Oakland’s murders rose 5 percent in 2001, to 84. That was still its fourth-lowest total in 30 years, and better than many other mid-sized cities. Nationwide, murders increased 9 percent last year in cities with populations between 250,000 to 499,999.
In Oakland, population 406,000, most of the victims and suspects have been black men, shot in neighborhoods where gangs and weapons are plentiful.
This year’s pace harkens back to the years of 1986 to 1995, when Oakland averaged 138 murders a year. At the current pace, the city could see more than 100 murders by year’s end for the first time since 1995.
Criminologists, who generally avoid declaring such numbers a trend until they continue for three years, say the same old factors are to blame — a lack of jobs in poor minority communities that have left too many young men with little hope in their futures.
“What’s key here is to get young males off the streets,” said Michael Rustigan, a criminology professor at San Francisco State University. “If you have a surplus of young males with no stake in the system, you’re going to have violence. There’s no question about it.”
Jervis Muwwakkil, 65, of Oakland was part of the overflow crowd that gathered for Tuesday’s meeting. He’s seen firsthand the personal sorrow that street violence can bring.
“I’ve lost two sons to the streets of Oakland. I don’t think that just hiring more police is the solution and if it is let’s bring 2,000 officers and put one on every corner,” Muwwakkil said.
Aleta Cannon, of West Oakland, fully supports a move that would have her pay more for additional officer on the streets.
“I don’t mind paying more taxes. We need this,” Cannon said.
In Oakland, police have sent more beat officers into hot spots, dedicated two officers to monitoring people on probation or parole and offered rewards for tips on gun crimes. The money Brown wants would not only pay for more officers, but expand violence prevention programs to reach more of the 600 or so youths believed to be responsible for most of the crimes.
Unemployment was 10.2 percent in 1992, when 165 homicides were the most in city history. By 1999, unemployment had dropped to 5.5 percent, the lowest of the decade, and homicides fell to 60. Now, the dot-com boom is bust, and overall unemployment is back at 10.2 percent, much higher for young black men, Rustigan said.
Experts say the same factors are always to blame for a spike in murder rates: a lack of jobs in poor minority communities that has left too many young men with little hope for their futures. Unemployment in Oakland is at 10.2 percent — the same as it was in 1992, when 165 homicides were the most in city history.