Applying Theory of Relativity to Oakland’s Murder Rate: J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday October 15, 2004

It was Albert Einstein who advanced the thought that all comparisons—among other things—are meaningless unless taken in context. Standing on the earth, you look up at the moon across a vast tract of space. Standing on the moon, you look up at the earth, along that same vast tract. Which one is up, which one is down...earth or moon? Depends on your point of view. 

Understanding this simple fact is the only way to explain the continuing coverage of Oakland’s continuing murder rate. In a Tribune story earlier this month about the West Oakland shooting death of 17-year-old Charleston Roberts, we find the obligatory line near the end: “Roberts’ death was the city’s 70th homicide of the year. Last year at this time there were 99 homicides.” How you view these numbers is entirely dependent on your point of view. For friends and relatives of Mr. Roberts, the only important number here is “one”—the one young man killed in Oakland on Oct. 5. For them, that number is ghastly, and it would not matter if Mr. Roberts were the first person murdered in Oakland this year, or the 701st. It would always be one murder too many. 

For local politicians seeking statewide office based largely on their law enforcement record (Mayor Brown, you think?), or police officials seeking to convince us as to how good a job they’re doing, the number to focus on is probably neither 70 nor 99, but the difference between the two. That allows them to say that murders in Oakland may be high, but they’re going down. And so we have Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson—who doesn’t always push the official Oakland City Hall line but is always in a good position to hear it—writes recently that “fewer people are being killed in [Oakland] this year than in the past two years, when homicides spiked to their highest totals since 1995. At the current rate, the city will finish 2004 with nearly 20 percent fewer slayings than the 114 killings last year.” And after praising Oakland’s homicide investigators for apprehending two particularly bad bad-boys, Mr. Johnson continues, “And maybe [these types of investigations and arrests] will ensure that the city’s homicide rate continues to head in the right direction—down.” 

That takes us back to Mr. Einstein’s theory, that what a thing “is” changes according to the point of view of the person observing that thing. Oakland’s homicides are going “down” only if you compare the number of homicides to the number that occurred by the same date one year ago. That’s a common way of comparing. However, you could just as easily argue that there never should be a single homicide, that we started out the year with no homicides, and that every killing since midnight on the first of January signifies that the number of murders in Oakland is going “up.” Same number of murders. Just a different point of view. 

And anyway, if we are going to use past years to judge how things are going this year, it would probably be better to look at long-term trends rather than year-to-year comparisons. If the murder rate drops 20 percent next year and again in 2006, then we could look back at 2004 and say that this was the beginning of a positive trend. On the other hand, if the numbers of murders jumps again in the next two years, then 2004 will probably be considered nothing but an aberration, a temporary lull in a horrific storm. 

Of course, looking at long-term trends is the territory of historians and sociologists and planners, all of whom get paid to take their time. Anxious Oakland residents—or visitors who might happen to just be passing through—can’t wait five years to see if they need to keep ducking. 

In that case, the best way to look at whether Oakland murders are going to continue to go “down” is to get some sort of idea as to why they went “down” this year. 

Some of the supporters of Measure Y—the Oakland ballot initiative that would raise taxes to increase the number of police officers—point to Operation Impact as the reason for the reduction in the murder rate. I’ve discussed this operation at length in other columns—basically, it involved flooding East Oakland’s high-crime areas with roving patrols of Oakland police officers supplemented by the California Highway Patrol and Alameda County Sheriff’s Deputies. These officers were not so much involved in investigating crimes as they were doing glorified traffic patrol, the theory being, I suppose, that if you stop enough cars in an area that has got a lot of murders, you’re bound to stop one or two actual or potential murderers along the way. At the time Operation Impact was initiated at the end of the summer of 2003, the murder rate was soaring. In February of this year, the Tribune reported that “during the first four months [of Operation Impact from September through December 2003], serious crime like homicide, robbery and assault were down 6 percent from the same period in 2002.” 

True. But while disrupting the flow of nighttime weekend traffic along International and Bancroft and MacArthur may have also disrupted the flow of criminal activity, it did nothing to attack the reasons for that criminal activity. One would have easily guessed that drug dealers and burglars and robbers would not stop drug dealing and burgling and robbing because they see squads of police officers riding around their neighborhood—they would simply move into other areas, where there weren’t so many police patrols. And so, apparently, they have. The Tribune recently reports that residents of the middle class Mills College-area neighborhood of Maxwell Park (just up from the crime hot-spot crossroad of Seminary and Bancroft) are considering suing the city because—as residents put it—the police have not been responding to a recently-rising crime rate in their area, including frequent gunshots in a community that rarely had them before. “[Police Chief] Richard Word has said we are getting more crime because the cops are chasing the criminals from East Oakland and they are coming here,” the Trib quoted Maxwell Park resident Gary Busboom. 

Is the flooding of crime areas with more cops causing a long-term reduction in the rate of Oakland’s murders? At this point, nobody can say. But one thing ought to be clear...there’s a danger in tossing buckets of water on this fire without first seeing what’s making it burn. If it turns out to be grease, you’ll only make it spread.