Oakland Tribune 9-30-03

“My Word” Column


At the current kill rate Oakland will have 120 homicide victims by Christmas. [We’re now a handful short of 100 Oakland lives lost to bullets, knives and assaults.] Oakland is reaping the bitter harvest of its neglect of the public protection infrastructure. Chief Word and his officers were expected to do more with less.

Violent crime has a relentless opportunistic quality – it exploits weaknesses, especially reduced police protection. Unchecked, it turns good neighborhoods into bad ones and transforms bad neighborhoods into war zones. Oakland’s population mix contains a significant percentage of dangerous people. Among Oakland’s law-abiding citizens there are thousands of probationers and parolees, mostly crime prone males, nearly all repeat offenders with growing criminal histories More than 3,000 of them have done state prison time.

The re-offend rate from this group exceeds 70 percent. For a typical parolee, there are several buddies, all at high risk of criminal behavior. In large parts of Oakland, more than 10 percent of the population is crime-prone.

This law enforcement challenge is magnified by a “don’t snitch” ethos on the street. Most homicides are unsolved for this reason.

You’d think that by now we’d have learned that maintaining security in places with large crime-prone sub-populations can’t be done on the cheap. When Oakland reached the 100 homicide mark last year, I warned in a “My Word” column that the defeat of the measure for 100 new police positions would have consequences.

This March I pointed out that OPD, already suffering from inadequate staffing levels, could ill-afford the reduction of even one officer position. I warned that deeper cuts could lead to a catastrophe.

Those deeper cuts were implemented.

Having worked with public protection budgets at the county level for years, I am familiar with the arguments that always surface in hard times.

Everything with a constituency is equal: Parks, roads, health, welfare, and so on. So nothing is sacred and all pain is shared.

But this is just not true. In a war zone, there is one overriding priority: Stop the war. Unchecked, the domestic war in Oakland can take down all of the progress of the last ten years and do it in ten months.

Chief Word’s borrowed cops program, using loaned officers from other agencies, has helped stem the violence. This was a temporary fix, a proof of concept, verification that more cops on the street reduce crime.

This isn’t rocket science. Oakland needs more cops, more police training, more police community involvement, more patrols, and more homicide investigators. Oakland’s leaders need to take three steps:

Go to Chief Word and ask: What resources do you need to reverse the trend in violent crime, to get ahead of the killers and return Oakland to safer conditions?

Convert this to a number and a funding plan.

Go to the Council and to the voters as necessary and get it passed.

In the dark days of the Great Depression, FDR said it best: Among the greatest of freedoms is freedom from fear. This defines the one entitlement that trumps all the rest. It is the right to have the criminal law enforced in your neighborhood, rich or poor. No child or adult in Oakland should have to live in fear of a bullet, a knifing or a beating.

Jay Gaskill is the former Alameda County Public Defender

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