Oakland’s Choice: Cops or Caseworkers

Even as Oakland's murder rate finally seems to be leveling off, city leaders grapple with how to sell voters crime prevention.

For the last four years, Oakland has seen a steady increase in its homicide rate, until it seemed that the only thing the city would be known for was the thing it’s always been known for. Day after day, headlines about horrific, inexplicable murders splashed across the local newspapers, and desperate East Oakland parents marched on City Hall, demanding that something should be done. But in the last two years, the only type of new taxes that Oakland voters have consistently rejected are those to fund police and violence-prevention programs. First, Mayor Jerry Brown’s plan to finance the hiring of one hundred new cops went down to blazing defeat in November 2002. Then in March, City Councilwoman Nancy Nadel’s scheme to emphasize social programs over cops died a long, drawn-out death — even as these same voters approved library and school taxes. Although the escalating murder rate has been the issue dominating all others in Oakland these last few years, voters don’t seem sufficiently aroused to do anything about it.

Last week, Oakland city councilmembers began the first of many bull sessions designed to fashion a new crime-fighting formula that voters will actually like. This time, they hope, everyone on the council will mount an organized hard sell, and this November, they hope, the electorate will respond by finally giving the city the tools it needs to get serious about violent crime. But first they have to figure out what it takes to get two-thirds of the voters to approve a crime tax. Do they want more cops, or more social programs? Community police who come to every meeting of the garden club, or paramilitary goon squads that kick ass and take no names?

The answer, unfortunately, is that there is no answer. The problem is lethally simple, but no one in the city can agree on the solution. And the reason is that, unlike Oakland’s last crime wave, the current murder spree isn’t affecting everywhere in the city. While most of the homicides continue to stem from poverty within the black community, a decade of gentrification and population shifts has steadily eroded the poor and black presence in North Oakland and on the east side of Lake Merritt. Once upon a time, murder was the entire city’s problem; now, it’s primarily the concern of East and West Oakland.

The degree of menace residents feel — whether they hear gunfire when they go to sleep at night — directly affects how they think the city should fight crime. That sense now varies so strikingly from neighborhood to neighborhood that consensus on what to do about the murders may be impossible. And because Oakland needs two-thirds of the voters to pass a new crime tax, this institutional disagreement could forever kill any plan to stanch the city’s violence.

Ten years ago, North Oakland was Dodge City. Crack-fueled incidents like the Bosn’s Locker massacre appalled residents in that neighborhood, and corridors such as Shattuck Avenue and Market Street had devolved into shooting galleries. Gunshots were the soundtrack to life.

What a difference a decade makes. Figures from the Oakland Police Department show that in 1999, just before the latest crime wave, North and easternmost Oakland suffered roughly the same number of murders: five homicides in North Oakland, and seven in the East Oakland district represented by City Councilman Larry Reid. As the murders began to escalate in 2000, North Oakland’s homicide rate remained steady at between four and six a year; even the notorious drug feud along the Berkeley-Oakland border pushed the murder rate to only ten in 2003. Meanwhile, murders in Reid’s district jumped from seven in 1999 to 22 in 2000 — and stayed on this grisly pace for years. Last year, his district had more than twice as many murders as North Oakland, even with the Berkeley feud that caught so many headlines.

Don Link has lived in North Oakland for more than twenty years and has worked to stop local crime since the early ’90s. He remembers how deadly his neighborhood used to be back then. “I would go to sleep, and it was not unusual to hear gunshots at night,” he says. “That’s really long gone. Hearing a gunshot now would be akin to seeing a UFO.” These days, he adds, most crime involves quality-of-life issues, a sure sign of a growing middle-class sense of safety. “People are most outraged by public disorder, low-level crime,” he says. “The boom-box cars that shake houses, the kids on motor scooters like little mosquitoes. And the people most unhappy with that are people new to the neighborhood, who just spent half a million dollars on a little bungalow in a neighborhood that maybe has a crack house or a house not kept up.”

In addition, North Oakland is at the forefront of community policing, which emphasizes officers identifying neighborhood trouble spots and gently warning kids that they’re being watched. It’s no coincidence that this neighborhood was the bedrock of support for Measure R, which would have funded social programs and other long-term solutions to crime. Meanwhile Councilman Larry Reid, who dedicates his career to fighting violence and tries to visit the scene of every murder in his district, was decidedly lukewarm in his support for the measure. Perhaps because the murder problem is so acute in his district, Reid doubts that Measure R’s social programs would have done much more than waste taxpayers’ money. “For me, there’s a ton of programs already existing,” he says. “But you have to want to use them, and I don’t know how many people want to change their lives.” The key to convincing people to pass crime taxes, he adds, is cops on the street: “We’ve got to get people like those at the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils to understand that more officers will be patrolling the city neighborhoods. They want more officers walking the beats and getting out of their car.”

City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, whose own working-class district generally suffered twice as many murders as North Oakland in the last few years, was even more forthright, openly campaigning against Measure R. “We’ve spent millions and millions of dollars in prevention, and what we need is more cops,” says De La Fuente, who will be running for mayor in 2006. “We gotta put out the fire. Even Nancy Nadel knows that it takes five or more years to see if the programs are effective, but we got a problem right now, and we gotta really kick ass and put out the fire.”

This divide in public opinion is more complicated than just a middle-class preference for long-term solutions and a working-class need for immediate action. Police scandals such as the Riders have soured many young black residents on the cops, and some people worry that just as many black voters will be alienated by a cop-heavy plan as will embrace it. “There’s a lot of people who believe that the police department is the bad guys,” says Dan Siegel, a rumored 2006 mayoral candidate who sits on the school board and has worked to implement community policing for more than a decade. “There’s too much abuse, especially among the black and brown communities. Relations between the black and Hispanic communities and the police department are at loggerheads; it’s worse than at any time that I can remember. … When the police department comes and says we need more police, which I agree with, people say, ‘We don’t agree. We think you’re part of the problem. ‘”

If there’s one thing everyone on the city council now accepts, it’s that voters want some sort of social program, and that if they ask the voters for more cops, they have to be part of a community policing program, which everyone suddenly loves after years of derision. But that, too, is part of the problem. In 2001, then-City Manager Robert Bobb wiped out the community policing program, fatuously declaring that henceforth, every cop was a community police officer. Even if cop-leery voters would be swayed by the prospect of kinder, gentler community police officers, the fact is that the city doesn’t actually have such a program. And according to Councilwoman Jane Brunner, the police department remains bureaucratically suspicious of the program and will probably find ways to kill or cripple it.

“The chief of police has to decide that prevention, intervention, are as important as suppression,” Brunner says. “I don’t think it’s just the union. It’s the culture; they’re trained to arrest people. … I just don’t think that the whole concept of what community policing is about became accepted by the police department. My concern is no matter how much money we put into a program, the culture has to change.”

So cowboy cops hate community policing. Young black people tend to hate cops. Older working-class residents want more cops, right now. Middle-class home buyers fear crime more than anyone, but prefer social programs. If state law didn’t require a two-thirds voter threshold to approve new taxes, most of these profound differences would have been subsumed by an overwhelming need to stop the murders, and the city would have the resources it needs. Measure R, for example, got 65.86 percent of the vote — and still failed. Many observers agree that all it took for the measure to fail was the opposition of a few crime and community activists around Highland Hospital, an ad hoc group that has since taken the name Safety First and is working on its own crime package. With yet another interest group joining the mix, this city may never reconcile its competing visions on how to stop the plague of violence.

If there’s one silver lining to this dilemma, it’s that while Oakland’s leaders have fought a two-year battle on how to get enough money to fight the homicide rate, the murders themselves have gone down on their own, thanks in part to new police tactics employed in the last few months. Just call Oakland the city that figures out how to solve problems after they’re gone.

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