A Longer-Range View of Oakland’s Homicides By J.DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Monday January 03, 2005

Most Oaklanders—crossing racial, ethnic, age, community, and class differences—want a significant end to the murders in their city. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown—deep in his run for California attorney general in the election two years away—needs for it to appear that Oakland murders are ending. There is, you can guess, a significant difference between the two positions. 

If you needed a good example of the above, one was provided this week by our friends at the San Francisco Chronicle in the article headlined “Oakland-Homicide rate plummeting,” with the helpful, explanatory subhead (in case you didn’t get the point) “Down 23 percent to date, and police expect decline to continue.”  

Of course the Chronicle—like all newspapers—is responsible for its own take on things, but newspapers are sometimes assisted along the way by helpful public officials, and this headline and article have all the makings of a Jerry Brown spin. 

The article says that “police and community leaders attribute [the homicide rate drop] to an ambitious anti-violence plan,” which Mr. Brown explains has police “focused on suppressing drug deals in hot spots and open-air drug markets.” We will return to those thoughts, in a moment. 

First, though, a look at the chart which accompanies the article, and which shows the number of Oakland homicides this year and every year back through 1989. And if you look only at the last three years of the chart you will conclude that, yes, homicides have gone down in Oakland, from a spike of 113 and 114 in 2002 and 2003 to 88 going into the last couple of days of 2004. 

But if we are concerned with long-term trends—that is, with where things appear to be going, rather than where they are—a look at the entire 16-year run of the chart gives a slightly different impression. 

1989 through 1995 shows homicides in Oakland holding depressingly steady around 150 to 160 a year, peaking at 175 in 1992. This was the period just past the height of the crack epidemic, when battles were still going on to control the street corner drug traffic, and automatic weapons fire could be heard across the city on any given night. 

That trend began to break in the last years of the Elihu Harris administration and the first year of the Brown administration, dropping 50 percent between 1995 and 1996 (153 homicides down to 102), and then dropping sharply again from 110 in 1997 down to the 16 year low of 68 in 1999. That five-year period, 1995 through 1999, is where Oakland actually saw a massive, sustained drop in its rate of homicides. 

It might be instructive to our present situation to determine how, and why, that homicide rate drop happened. A victory in the street corner drug wars by one side or the other? Successes by the police in violence prevention? Some combination of the two? Some other factors? It certainly would be in Oakland’s interests to know, to see if the lessons can be applied to the present situation. But it might not be in Mayor Brown’s interests, since all of that occurred before the effects of his administration began to take hold. And so, on this important issue, we have no official findings. 

If we look at both the 68 homicides in 1999 and the two-year 113-114 spike in 2002-03 as statistical aberrations, we see that the trend of Oakland’s homicides is actually going slightly up during the Jerry Brown years—from the low 80s just before he took office, to the high 80s two years before he is due to leave us. 

Should Jerry Brown be blamed for presiding over a rising homicide rate in Oakland? That’s something for California voters to decide when Mr. Brown comes before them in 2006 as a candidate for attorney general. But meanwhile, Oaklanders must be forgiven if we gag on the spin. 

Oakland police, Mr. Brown tells us, have “focused on suppressing drug deals in hot spots and open-air drug markets.” Really? I’m not sure what’s happening to the north and the west, but in the East Oakland neighborhood where I grew up, the open-air drug locations which were in place when I returned in the late 1980s are the same ones in place today. Once in a while there have been stings and busts and activity has temporarily slowed, only to return—shortly—to its previous level. In fact, drive-through drug operations appear to be expanding in East Oakland in recent months, with dealers establishing themselves on new corners, and becoming more brazen in their established locations. I come by this information not by any special knowledge or practice of sophisticated police surveillance techniques, merely by driving through my own neighborhood. But, then, I’m not certain if Mr. Brown ever drives through my neighborhood. 

But more important than hype and misstatements from the Brown administration is what is missing entirely: some sense of a long-range plan to address Oakland’s violence. That is something which is important for people who intend to make Oakland their long-term home, less important to someone—the mayor, perhaps?—who sees this merely as a way-station to other places. Part of that long-range plan would, necessarily, begin with some commitment to Oakland’s youth, to keep them from becoming either victims of criminal violence or criminals themselves. 

In October, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom made youth a priority in his State of the City address, stating, in part, “Today, San Francisco has 42 youth in the California Youth Authority. I believe the CYA is no place to send our children. … Today, I am announcing that we are convening a task force [that] will develop a plan to ensure that none of San Francisco’s children will be sent to the CYA. This plan will be in place by the end of my term.”  

I have no idea of the sincerity of Mr. Newsom, or whether his task force and plan will ever work. But words have a power, and the San Francisco mayor’s words—“San Francisco’s children”—in effect, “our children”—are refreshing in their indication of inclusion. 

By contrast, Mr. Brown does not seem to hold the view that the young people of Oakland are Oakland’s responsibility in general and his responsibility in particular, or the understanding that putting his arms around the youth of Oakland in 2004-05 will pay dividends for the city and all of its citizens in 2014-15, and all the years beyond. Instead, we have seen Mayor Brown once hire a Parks and Recreation director—remember Harry Edwards—who managed to have the recreation centers closed down for the summer, and the mayor watched quietly over the gradual destruction of the Oakland Unified School District while raising a hand only to protect his two charter schools. 

Forgive me, then, if I don’t seem impressed by a one-year decrease in the number of Oakland homicides. That’s great for the 20 extra people who lived through the year. Not so great, if they make it merely to become part of 2005’s statistic. A discussion by Oaklanders of long-term solutions—beyond the terms of the present politicians—is in order, and long overdue.