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Oakland residents defend city amid rise in crime, political backlash

Despite a resurgence of political bashing of their city over rising petty crime, residents and criminal justice researchers say a sudden crime wave is no reason to devalue all the work done to improve Oakland for years.

The city is under fire for a sudden spike in petty crimes, including thefts and a well-publicized series of robberies including car thefts, referred to in the San Francisco Bay Area as “bipping.” Videos of those crimes have gone viral, in part thanks to both local and national television coverage and a small-but-vocal number of people who say local leaders aren’t listening to their concerns.

But those who know the city well say it’s more of the same treatment they have faced for decades. Stories about crime in the city get the most clicks, according to local activists like Elmano Gonsalves, who has attacked local media-outlet columnists since 2014 for perpetuating negative stereotypes. He and other Oaklanders say that the portrayal of the city as crime-ridden undermines the hard work done by locals—and what Oaklanders have voted for. 

The fervor stems from a political campaign to recall District Attorney Pamela Price, who dominated the June 2022 primary and beat the former district attorney’s expected successor by taking about 53% of votes. In a county known for calls for justice reform amid incidents of excessive force and discrimination across the local criminal justice system, Price is the county’s first Black lead prosecutor, and campaigned promoting increased police accountability.

Just one month into Price’s term, a change.org recall petition launched in February netted 25,000 signatures. The unofficial petition can accept unvetted signatures from people who don’t live in the county, which has more than 1.5 million residents. And the official committee, “Save Alameda for Everyone,” filed in Alameda County on July 17, and on Aug. 15 said it had enough signatures to proceed.

Oakland’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which criticized recently elected Mayor Sheng Thao over firing former Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong during the latest Oakland Police scandal, released a statement blaming “the movement to defund the police” and Price for recent crime waves. 

The Oakland Police Department was not actually defunded, with the city council approving increasingly larger budgets within the last two years. This month, Thao called the California Highway Patrol for backup to “reduce crime and bolster services, despite inheriting a historic budget deficit.”

While local leaders face the most pressure to address crime, their policy actions are difficult to connect to outcomes, according to Jonathan Simon, Lance Robbins Professor of Criminal Justice Law at UC Berkeley. He said that people need to understand socioeconomic reasons behind sudden upticks in crime, and it is illogical to connect recent policy changes as driving any increase or decrease.

For that reason, Simon said he disagrees with efforts to blame Price for any problems within months of her election. He noted that despite spikes in homicides during former DA Nancy O’Malley’s decade of authority, she never faced a recall threat.

Simon said mainstream media and politicians are more likely to paint traditionally Black communities with Black people in power as places with more crime and less accountability. But Black people are most likely to experience criminalization and hate crimes, with those crimes increasing 27% from 2021 to 2022 according to California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s July 27 report.

“She [Price] campaigned explicitly on bringing more civil rights and more innovative ways to use the prosecutor’s office,” he said. “And people voted for that.”

Coalition for Police Accountability-head Rashidah Grinage agreed that breathless coverage of crime, and blaming it on newly elected authorities, is “completely irrational” and does not help people understand what is really happening in their communities.

“People are conflating a lot of things that really have nothing to do with each other,” Grinage said. “Now you have a new group of people who are enraged because it’s hitting home, and these folks really have no background on understanding crime. They’re picking the lowest hanging fruit, which is Pamela Price.”

Grinage said she thinks more people concerned about Oakland should get off of social media and get involved in public bodies like the Police Commission. They could also learn more about the community groups working to reach their fellow neighbors—like Operation Ceasefire, a program operating in Oakland to contact people in neighborhoods at high risk of gun violence.

Simon agreed that the only upside of such debates over Oakland is the possibility for community awareness. He said that on the positive side, many people are getting more involved on the ground to pay attention to what’s happening in their neighborhoods.

Thao said in a statement that local community programs are key to addressing the systemic issues that influence public safety.

“There are broad coalitions working in support of these efforts with the understanding that while we must solve crimes and hold perpetrators accountable, the best way to make the city safer is preventing crime before it ever occurs,” she said. “It is so critical that we take an approach that encompasses the city government working with community organizations, the private sector and other government partners to create a foundation for lasting change.”

The Los Angeles-based attorneys listed on paperwork as running the Save Alameda for Everyone recall attempt did not respond to requests for comment before press time, nor did the NAACP. Price’s representative said her office does not comment on the recall.

Alameda County’s Registrar of Voters has not responded to requests for information about the recall attempt. Lead county counsel Donna Ziegler released a statement Aug. 16 saying that the registrar is reviewing the county charter and state law to determine the rules and timeline for handling a recall. No elected official in the county has faced a recall in at least 30 years, Ziegler said.

Courthouse News

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