Oakland Officials Confounded By Surge In Violent Crime

Oakland, Calif., is among the U.S. cities that's seen an increase in violence over the last year. The uptick in crime comes as the police department is also under pressure from a federal court to reform its ways.

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We head north now to Oakland, California where city officials and the police are confounded by a surge in violent crime. Last year, the city tallied 131 homicides. That's the highest count in six years.

As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, this surge comes as the police department is trying to implement reforms ordered by a federal court almost a decade ago.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: I'm standing on San Pablo Avenue, one of Oakland's busiest streets in front of Saint Columba Catholic Church. The congregation here is predominantly African-American. On the lawn in front of the church are six white crosses with the names of the six homicide victims.

FATHER AIDAN MCALEENAN: And so, there's a big sign here beside the old cathedral cross that says these are the number of homicides in Oakland to date, at this point in time.

GONZALES: Father Aidan McAleenan is a pastor at Saint Columba's. He says his parishioners will soon add crosses for two more people slain in recent days.

MCALEENAN: I actually live here, so I see many people coming and standing and crying and praying, and people just taking photographs. So it's become a pretty significant memorial, I think, in this city.

GONZALES: Father Aidan has presided over more than a few of the funerals of these victims.

MCALEENAN: Its Latinos killing Latinos, poor Latinos, and black on black crime and gangs. And, you know, there's a child killed by - a 15-year-old girl is killed by a 13-year-old, you know, in the opening moments of the year. And your heart just drops.

GONZALES: The murders this year follow a disturbing pattern set last year when violent crime in Oakland jumped 23 percent - burglaries even more so. Meanwhile, the police department is severely understaffed. Thanks to budget cuts and attrition, there are more than 200 fewer officers than five years ago.

For many residents, there was a palpable sense of desperation at a recent and exhaustive nine-hour public meeting of the Oakland City Council.

BISHOP BOB JACKSON: The blood of black boys and brown boys are all in our streets. Bullets are flying in our neighborhoods, gunshots almost every night.

GONZALES: That's the Bishop Bob Jackson of the Acts Full Gospel Church in East Oakland.

Facing this crime surge, city officials had proposed bringing in one of the most famous cops in America, former New York and Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, as a consultant.

Bishop Jackson.

JACKSON: We need Bill Bratton as a strategist and he can come in and help us do a better job with public safety in this city. I'm for Bill Bratton coming in.

GONZALES: But Bratton, who did not appear at the meeting, is a divisive figure. Many people complained that Bratton's support for so-called stop and frisk tactics of criminal suspects would lead to racial profiling.

Here's Oakland resident Denise Mewbourne.

DENISE MEWBOURNE: Stop and frisk is really the tip of the iceberg of what he did in New York City. No reasonable person wants a police state. And that is not the direction that the community wants to see Oakland go.

GONZALES: In the end, the City Council voted seven to one to hire Bratton.

Yet, combating the crime surge is complicated by other factors, too, like a long delayed effort to reform the police department. For the past decade, the department has operated under the watchful eye of a federal judge, stemming from a case in which officers beat and framed African-American residents. During the same period, the city has also spent more than $50 million settling police misconduct cases.

JAKADA IMANI: I think there is a level of fear and distrust from young people on the streets. And from the work that I do with young people, they don't see that the Oakland Police Department is there to protect and serve them.

GONZALES: Jakada Imani directs the Ella Baker Center, a human rights group based in Oakland.

IMANI: There's a level of disappointment and frustration, I think, from older residents, who want there to be really good standard and regular police services, and find the department lacking that.

GONZALES: The future of the police department lies in the hands of a federal judge who will soon appoint a so-called compliance officer to oversee the completion of the reforms ordered almost 10 years ago. And if the judge is not satisfied with the pace of reform, Oakland could become the first American city to see a full federal court takeover of its law enforcement.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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