Oakland Suffers from Rising Rates of Violent Crime

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A spike in violent crime and homicides in Oakland, Calif., comes at a time when the city says it can't attract enough recruits for its police force. Residents of Oakland's most crime-plagued neighborhoods say they're caught in the middle.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's get a crime report from Oakland, California where there have been 23 homicides since the beginning of the year. The murder rate has tripled over the past year and other violent crimes are also on the rise. Residents are demanding that the city hire more police officers.

But as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports that demand has not been easy to meet.

(Sound bite of people protesting)

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

This week, dozens of residents rallied in front of Oakland City Hall demanding the immediate hiring of more cops. They shared stories of being confronted by neighborhood thugs and then having to wait for hours for police to respond.

Andy Friend(ph), a resident of North Oakland, helped organize the protest.

Mr. ANDY FRIEND (Protest Organizer): There are between 30 to 38 police officers on the streets at any time in the City of Oakland. For a city of 400,000 people, that is insane. We need more trained and effective police officers in this city.

GONZALES: After the rally, the protestors presented more than a thousand petition signatures to the city council demanding action. But not everyone is convinced that hiring more cops is the answer, especially in the predominantly black neighborhood of West Oakland, where police are not always seen as friends.

MR. GREG HODGE (Activist and School Board Member): There's no way around it. Every time somebody gets shot in this neighborhood, we're one or two degrees removed from it--because it was somebody's uncle, somebody's dad, somebody's sister.

GONZALES: Neighborhood activist and school board member, Greg Hodge, is talking about one of the most recent murder victims, a 26 year old man named Chad Murphy, whose family and police say had no connection with drugs or gangs. On the contrary, Murphy was a budding real estate entrepreneur who was gunned down just as he was about to move out of crime-plagued West Oakland. Hodge says there's an air of resignation among his neighbors.

Mr. HODGE: So most people in the neighborhood, they're pretty cynical. They fell like nobody's really listening, nobody really cares, that most of the solutions that have come out of City Hall have been law and order solutions. This is a public health issue. It's an education issue. It's an economic development issue. But it never gets framed that way.

GONZALES: The death of Chad Murphy came a day after Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown announced the redeployment of more than 100 police officers to work in crime hotspots.

Mayor JERRY Brown (Oakland, California): Fighting crime is the number one priority that is being enshrined by this redeployment. So this is an energized, focused effort to reduce crime and make the criminals realize Oakland is not a place where they ought to be.

GONZALES: But Brown's police department is also understaffed. In 2004, voters approved a tax measure for crime prevention programs and to hire more cops. But the effort is hampered by a lack of qualified recruits and competition from surrounding cities, such as San Francisco, which is also beefing up its police force.

Meanwhile, veteran Oakland officers are retiring at the rate of three per month. The department is also under a court order to bolster its internal affairs unit as a result of a police abuse scandal involving a group of renegade cops known as The Riders.

Still, City Council President Ignacio del La Fuentes says it's time for Oakland cops to be more aggressive on the street.

Mr. IGNACIO DEL LA FUENTES (President, Oakland City Council): I'd rather explain and I'd rather deal with complaints about our police officers coming down hard, than explain to some mother or father that their son has been shot and killed.

GONZALES: Oakland's crime rate is certain to have political reverberations in and outside the city. Council President del La Fuentes hopes to be the city's next mayor. And the current mayor, Jerry Brown, is running for California Attorney General.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland, California.

INSKEEP: You're listening to NPR News.

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