Around the country, Oakland is perhaps best known for its celebrity mayor and for its crime. Specifically, its murder rate, which last year hit 114 homicides — the city’s highest annual body count since 137 people were slain in 1995. Oakland, of course, isn’t alone in having to contend with a rising number of shot-up corpses. It’s one of a handful of cities nationwide whose murder rates have spiked steeply in the past few years, following a long decline.
But just how to deal with the intractable problem of violence has pushed city leaders to the fringes of civility. Some are convinced that hiring more cops is the way to go. Others, equally vocal, believe funding more violence-prevention programs and support services for at-risk youth and parolees is the only meaningful way to deter would-be criminals. Each side has lined up constituents, spokespeople, and organizations to bolster its positions in anticipation of the moment of truth: Tuesday’s election.
On March 2 Oaklanders will be asked to weigh in on Measure R — aka the Youth, Family, and Family Violence Prevention Act of 2004 — a parcel tax whose noble ambition is to reduce crime. Although it’s a hodgepodge initiative with a nod to cop lovers, at its heart is the belief that social programs are the path to a more peaceful Oakland.
As a tax initiative, Measure R requires two-thirds of the vote to win. If successful, it would impose a $90-per-year assessment on single-family homes, and up to $180 for larger commercial and residential buildings, with the aim of raising $10 million a year over the next decade. Of that revenue, 60 percent would flow to social programs, with the rest going to hire more cops.
Although supposed to be compromise legislation, Measure R has some high-profile critics. “We have to face the fact that quite a few of the people who perpetuate these crimes have little interest in these programs,” says City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who opposes the measure along with Councilman Danny Wan. “Most of the money from this would go to social and training programs, which the city already spends millions of dollars on annually. This just duplicates those efforts and totally makes no sense.”
De La Fuente wants more cops on the street. He notes that Oakland, with 757 sworn officers, has fewer than half the cops employed by cities of comparable size — Long Beach, for instance, has more than nine hundred officers — while the city spends $20 million a year on programs that deal with crime prevention. Measure R would fund another thirty cops, but that’s not nearly enough for De La Fuente. “When you look at the needs, what Oakland needs is more blue uniforms,” he says.
In 2002 Oakland voters shot down a ballot attempt to hire one hundred new cops with funds from increased parking, hotel, and utility taxes. Measure R’s critics hope to retool the defeated initiative and put it on the November ballot. “We want the majority of the money going to hire police officers,” says Brendon Mulholland, a Measure R opponent who chairs the Crime Prevention Council in his Fruitvale-San Antonio neighborhood.
Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, one of the measure’s chief architects, says it was crafted after a year of working with police, young people, criminal justice experts, and Oakland residents, and addresses the entire spectrum of the vexing problem. “Police don’t stop the violence. They can catch perpetrators, but they don’t prevent it,” she says. “We looked at what was really missing from our funded programs and at new areas and chose things that would really make the most difference.”
Measure R has the backing of three of Nadel’s council colleagues — Desley Brooks, Henry Chang, and Larry Reid — along with Mayor Jerry Brown and Police Chief Richard Word. Although a named supporter, Brown comes off as a somewhat reluctant one. The mayor threw his weight behind the prior hundred-cops initiative, and now seems resigned to the idea that thirty more officers are better than none.
“The truth of the matter is you can question how effective those programs are,” Brown says. “But if we can get $11 million during a time of fiscal scarcity — that’s a positive. I’m certainly going to vote for it. Do we need more cops? Absolutely. We need three hundred more. But you know what? We couldn’t get one hundred.”
The social policy portion of Measure R would contribute roughly $6 million a year to programs that promote after-school activities, mentoring, parent involvement, job training, and early intervention — primarily for kids from the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Just who the service providers would be remains unclear, but the measure requires an annual audit to ensure accountability and proper disbursement of funds. It would also create a committee to monitor the programs and ensure they are doing what they promised. Nadel says she’d like to see an expansion of truancy-prevention efforts, which she says have been tremendously successful, as well as employment programs for ex-criminals.
But juvenile justice experts caution that simply expanding programs doesn’t ensure less crime. Jeffrey Butts, director of youth justice research for the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, says early intervention programs and services for at-risk youth can be enormously successful in preventing future crime. Studies have shown that for every dollar invested in prevention programs, the public saves $5 to $10 down the road, he says. Butts warns, however, that many of the programs aimed at at-risk youth are far less successful than they claim — to make themselves look good, program administrators often select only those kids who are least likely to commit crimes in the future.
“The challenge is, once a service provider or program director has access to funds to run a program, it becomes in their self- interest to avoid the serious cases,” Butts says. “They want to tell you we served a thousand kids and only two were arrested.”
To avoid what he calls “effect shopping,” Butts says the city would need to install a committee that oversees how the providers choose their youthful clients, parolees, and other beneficiaries of Measure R funds. “You need a careful, focused definition of ‘at-risk,'” he explains. “It’s very important that an independent body not only oversee the awarding of funds but the implementation and maintenance of the programs.”
Nadel says she likes this idea, although there is no provision in the initiative to do that. “Our job is to make sure the programs are effective, not to pretend they’re not,” she says. “We really want to reduce violence.”
Yet Butts also cautions that simply hiring more officers can have serious pitfalls as well. “It’s easy to waste money on cops and spend money on police positions that don’t turn into observable differences at the community level,” the researcher says. “I think walking patrols are a good thing, but it’s a challenge to do that well.”
As mayor, Brown has become a referee of sorts between his deeply divided colleagues. “Oakland is desperate for money,” he says like a man who has spent a lifetime in politics and has become well acquainted with unappealing compromises. “We’re not going to get one more cop unless it’s linked to social programs in the same package.”