Oakland has surpassed 100 murders this year but because of severe financial problems has cut the number of police officers on its streets.

Photo by: Ali Winston

Oakland has surpassed 100 murders this year but because of severe financial problems has cut the number of police officers on its streets.

OAKLAND, Calif. – Around 1 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 8, Maria Teresa Ramirez was pushing a red plastic car with her 3-year-old son Carlos Fernandez Nava along International Boulevard in East Oakland, Calif. As Ramirez and her son drew close to a group of men standing outside a pizzeria near International and 64th Avenue, gunfire erupted from a passing car, striking Nava and two men on the corner. While the older men, the intended targets of the shooting, lived, Nava was fatally wounded by a bullet that passed through his neck. The murder, the 67th of 2011, sparked outrage. In a city where only a quarter of all murders are solved, police received a flood of tips and within a week arrested two men now charged with Nava’s death.

Oakland and crime are interwoven in the popular American consciousness. The city with the highest violent-crime rate in California is where Nancy Reagan gave her famous “Just say no” advice to a group of the city’s youth in 1982, when crack cocaine was tearing Oakland’s black and brown communities apart. With an official unemployment rate of 15 percent—almost double the national average—more than 100 murders annually for six of the past seven years and a violent-crime rate of 15.3 per thousand, which leads California cities, the East Bay’s largest city is no stranger to bloodshed.

Over the years, the federal government has poured millions into various anti-crime programs to stem the tide, ranging from blank-check grants for the war on drugs to intervention programs that combine law enforcement threats with job and educational opportunities.

Now doubts about the effectiveness of those programs are colliding with concerns about what impact federal budget reductions will have. Oakland is a place where urban America is confronting two questions: Does the federal government know how to help fight local crime? Can it afford to?

From War to a Dangerous Peace

Oakland’s contemporary shape cannot be understood outside the historical context of World War II–era labor migrations. Work at East Bay shipyards and the Oakland Army Base drew tens of thousands of black migrants to the Bay Area. Their history of voluntary and forced migration is critical to Oakland’s present. Drawn initially by economic opportunities presented by the war industries, black migrants were, after the war, left high and dry in the overcrowded, redlined neighborhoods of West Oakland as the region around them—in a very planned execution of classic California sprawl—saw new suburban tracts in East Oakland replace both orchard land and the factories that had paid decent working-class wages. East Bay real estate agents also played a critical role in establishing and enforcing racially exclusive housing covenants that for years shut black homeowners out of many neighborhoods in East and North Oakland, not to mention the affluent hillside areas.

However, it wasn’t until the federally financed construction of the freeway complexes in the 1950s and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in the late 1960s and early 1970s, coupled with the Center City project that razed blocks of old downtown Oakland for high-rise development through the late 1960s and 1970s, that this dynamic became directly destructive. All three projects forcibly displaced black renters, homeowners and businesses from established neighborhoods—in the case of BART, literally ripping up 7th Street, the heart of black West Oakland and a renowned mecca for musicians on the West Coast. Roughly 10,000 people were displaced from West Oakland by the freeways and BART, shifting them into formerly majority-white neighborhoods in North and East Oakland that were already experiencing white flight. As people of color arrived, that process of exiting accelerated, with 163,000 white residents leaving Oakland from 1955 to 1966, out of a city of roughly 360,000 people.

During the Johnson administration, a number of federal war-on-poverty projects aimed at reducing poverty proved to be a launching pad for black and Latino politics in Oakland and also offered an entry route for former (or current) radicals into the city’s political system. However, these projects were underfunded and did not address the rapid flight of Oakland’s industrial manufacturing base south to the expanding cities of Hayward and Fremont, which benefited directly from the freeway and BART systems that had eviscerated much of Oakland.

The freeways also sped the growth of the Port of Oakland, which was at the forefront of containerization and grew to become the third largest port in the country by 1970. Although it proved to be an economic engine for the region, the shipping and trucking traffic that bordered on residential areas of West Oakland created an environmental crisis, as smog and particulate matter from combustion engines led to elevated asthma and respiratory disease rates in the region.

A significant portion of the longshoremen who operate the Port of Oakland are black; however, nothing can make up for the eradication of dozens of black-owned businesses and the forced displacement caused by redevelopment.

As jobs fled Oakland and poverty increased, the narcotics trade boomed. In the 1970s and early 1980s, most of the trafficking in the city was in cocaine and heroin. That changed markedly in the mid-’80s with the introduction of crack, which spread from Southern California to Oakland and San Francisco. Oakland’s murder rate skyrocketed to the point where the city was averaging 167 murders per year by the early 1990s.

In response to this sustained rise in violent crime, the federal government provided assistance to Oakland in a number of ways—funding typical law enforcement activities as well as efforts to get at the root causes of the bloodshed.

A Law -and-Order Response

The Byrne Justice Assistance Grant gives the Oakland Police Department (OPD) several hundred thousand dollars a year to devote to whatever policing needs it feels are appropriate. This could include equipment, overtime, forensics or other expenses aimed at targeting, arresting and jailing violent offenders.

Oakland has received Byrne grant money for the past 16 years. From 2005 to 2011, Oakland received $6,914,182 through the program. “We’ve used those grants over the years to fund investigations, drug units and everything from laptops to vehicles,” Deputy Police Chief Jeff Israel tells City Limits. From 2005 through early 2007, $727,708 was put toward funding staff and equipment for the OPD’s crime lab to make up for cuts to a state grant that had previously funded evidence analysis.

Although authorized funding for the Byrne grants is $1.1 billion, on average only half a billion dollars of Byrne grant money is disbursed every year to hundreds of local law enforcement agencies across the U.S. There are currently more than 600 Byrne-funded drug task forces throughout the country.

In 2007 the Byrne grant’s focus in Oakland shifted toward crime suppression with a particular focus on reducing gang violence; $821,200 was provided to set up a 14-member unit charged with cracking down on gangs and lowering the body count. The change in priorities was a direct response to the 148 murders Oakland suffered in 2006, the most since the early 1990s. For the next four years, the city experienced a decrease in violent crime.

But there are conflicting perspectives on whether the Byrne grants worked, and they diverge along the typical lines of the national debate on the war on drugs. Law enforcement is highly supportive of the funding stream, with the National Criminal Justice Association—a prominent lobbying group for police agencies—labeling Byrne “the cornerstone federal justice assistance grant,” which promotes “innovation” as well as “evidence-based practices.” The NCJA also favors the flexibility agencies enjoy in using Byrne funds because that allows local law enforcement to identify and address its areas of concern.

Conversely, civil libertarians and law enforcement watchdogs caution that massive funding for narcotics policing without strict standards has promoted the militarization of law enforcement by underwriting purchases of heavy munitions such as semiautomatic rifles and surplus armored personnel carriers and providing guaranteed overtime for local drug task forces. Narcotics units are notoriously susceptible to skimming seized assets and fabricating evidence to make easy arrests. From 2004 through 2008, officers from Byrne-funded narcotics units in Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas were charged or convicted of misusing seized assets, perjury or making false arrests.

Filling a Gap

Critiques of Byrne grants exist on the right as well. David Muhlhausen, senior policy analyst from the conservative Heritage Foundation, testified against a $2 billion allocation to Byrne grants in the 2009 stimulus package. In his remarks, Muhlhausen said Byrne funds don’t actually fund vital drug enforcement activities, promote reckless spending and “encourage state and local governments to shirk their responsibility for funding public safety programs and become more dependent on funding from the federal government.” Indeed, like many other federal programs, the Byrne funds are drying up: A Republican Congress intent on deficit reduction cut national funding for Byrne grants by 16 percent in October 2011, down to $430 million. California received only $25 million in Byrne funds in 2011, compared with $54 million as recently as 2009.

The reduction in federal support is not, as Muhlhausen’s analysis might suggest, prompting states and cities to get back into the habit of funding their own law enforcement. For places like Oakland, this reflects not a political choice but simple math.

Oakland’s budget deficit has grown rapidly in recent years, largely fueled by the foreclosure crisis, which by next year will have put an estimated 28,000 Oaklanders out of their homes. (Home values in the city are expected to drop an additional $12 billion, according to a recent report by RealtyTrac.) As a result, the OPD’s staffing levels have decreased from more than 832 officers at the end of 2008 to 645 sworn personnel by November 2011.

This is in spite of federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants in 2008 and 2009 that provided funding for as many as 50 OPD officers.

Staffing issues have plagued the OPD. While officers earn $77,000 in starting pay before benefits and overtime, the size of their pay package and their exemption from pension contributions until late last year forced the city to cut the police force, which was already soaking up 40 percent of the city’s budget. (The NYPD, by comparison, absorbs 7 percent of New York City’s budget.) Oakland’s budget crisis of 2010 forced the city council to lay off 80 officers when the Oakland police refused to pay into their pensions. Oakland received $10.7 million more in COPS funding in September 2011 to rehire 25 officers. But COPS funds are a stopgap measure and do not address structural problems related to officer salaries and pension or Oakland’s inability to raise revenues. What’s more, they couldn’t replace all the officers the city had to pink-slip.

The yo-yo effect on police staffing levels rang familiar for critics of the COPS program. In his 2009 testimony, Muhlhausen cited Boston’s experience with COPS grants in the 1990s: The federal money led to a hiring spree, but after the federal money expired, 200 officers were laid off from 1999 to 2004, violating the rules of the COPS grant. Regardless of COPS funding, the Oakland police will not have money for a new academy class until June 2013, by which time the department will have only 552 officers. Against that backdrop, murders, robberies and shootings are all up substantially this year over 2010.

Fewer Funds, More Guns

Federal crime-fighting moneys have gone not only to traditional law enforcement solutions. Community-based strategies involving local investment, education and job-training programs have also been implemented in Oakland since the mid-1990s. The Weed and Seed initiative, which targets impoverished, high-crime neighborhoods with investment in community organizations, businesses and local infrastructure as well as an enhanced policing effort, has followed three iterations in the city.

The first effort centered on the Lockwood–Coliseum Gardens area of East Oakland in 1993. The project received $225,000 a year, funding police overtime, buying up problem properties and funding youth programs before it ended in 2001. The second iteration of Weed and Seed focused on the Hoover- Foster area of West Oakland, colloquially known as Ghost Town. Some $750,000 in federal funds over five years, beginning in 2003, went toward a Police Athletic League and various community beautification projects, with more than 60 percent of project money being directed toward law enforcement. That project wrapped up in 2007.

The last remaining Weed and Seed site in Oakland is Elmhurst, where $824,000 in federal money has gone toward public infrastructure, job training, safe havens for youth, helping ex-offenders re-enter society, a community garden and $100,000 for murals that will be put up along boulevards by local artists. Federal funding lasted from 2006 through 2010.

The catch is, though the Weed and Seed sites have been continuing under federal oversight, there is no more federal money for the program. According to project manager Joe DeVries, the current $170,000 funding on which the Elmhurst Weed and Seed is running comes from the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, which itself is in danger of being cut because of restructuring in state contributions to California cities. With more than half of that money going toward police overtime for arrests, surveillance and patrol, DeVries says the Weed and Seed funding from state coffers is a “pittance” and what’s really needed in East Oakland is “several million dollars per year for real job training, economic development and educational reform” to address deep-seated violence and poverty.

Federal gun control policy has also had a tremendous effect on Oakland, which is a major market for illicit weapons. U.S. Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag is tight-lipped about federal efforts to tackle arms trafficking. Statistics obtained by Syracuse University show a 13 percent increase in firearmsrelated federal charges in the Northern District of California, with 76 cases of illegal use or sales of firearms brought as of August 2011. Court documents show that handguns, shotguns and semiautomatic rifles are being purchased in states with lax control laws like Arizona, Nevada and even Georgia and are then transported to Oakland for sale. The expiration of a federal ban on the sale of assault weapons to civilians in 2004 has coincided with a rise of heavycaliber semiautomatic weapons on Oakland streets. Oakland police statistics show an average of 11 percent of the city’s shooting deaths are the result of assault weapons. Meanwhile, the OPD’s ability to track weapons seized by its officers has also been hobbled by the loss of a contractor responsible for tracing guns back to their point of origin. Funding for the contractor was cut by the local Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office, and the OPD has yet to find a replacement.

Carrots and Sticks

In Oakland, money is not the only obstacle to the success of federal anti-crime programs. Sometimes the method prescribed by the nation’s top criminologists clashes with the approach taken by local law enforcement and prosecutors.

As Weed and Seed has faded, the OPD has turned its focus to Operation Ceasefire, a program crafted by Harvard University criminologist David Kennedy that takes a carrot-and-stick approach in seeking to change the paths of probationers and parolees involved in violent crime. Participants are required to attend meetings as a condition of their parole or probation, where they are confronted by law enforcement about their past criminal activities and threatened with prosecution and hard time if they continue down this path. Then law enforcement leaves the room and the call-in participants are offered job placement and training services as well as enrollment in continuing-education programs. Local branches of federal law enforcement agencies, as well as the local U.S. Attorney, participate in Operation Ceasefire in Oakland as well as in other regional cities like San Francisco and Salinas.

At one call-in in Oakland last winter, two young men from West Oakland sat at a table in city hall and listened to police officers, probation agents and prosecutors warn them about the consequences if they are caught participating in violence. After half an hour of this tense, one-way lecture, ex-cons, clergy, hospital staff and local business owners beg the young men to turn their lives around and take advantage of the job training and educational services offered by the call-in.

While call-ins are politically popular in Oakland because of the antagonistic relationship between the Oakland police and the city’s communities of color stemming from the department’s long history of civil rights abuses (it is still under the supervision of a federal judge following a corruption scandal in the early aughts), they have produced dubious results in Oakland. According to a final progress report for the initiative, which cost $828,217, half in city funds, half in state money, 103 people took part in the call-ins, with 34 people receiving educational services and 56 participants gaining unsubsidized employment; the program was supposed to reach 216 people. Furthermore, the call-in approach is crossing wires with a strategy pursued by Oakland’s city attorney that focuses on gang injunctions—a legal tool used in California and a few other states that limits alleged gang members’ movements and associations. For gang members targeted by this tactic, responding to a call-in at which they’d sit next to other former gangbangers could mean violating the injunction.

Shumarr Doernners, a 32-year-old West Oakland piano mover who is on probation for a gun charge, says the city sent a confusing message by including on gang injunction lists the same people it had offered aid through call-ins. “You can’t bring the police in and … threaten us, then have the other 15 minutes of it is people from the community, well, people from these organizations saying, ‘Hey, we’re to help you,’ ” he says. “Hold on, how you here to help us when now, we feel like you with the police?”

In spite of the difficulties encountered in the call-in program, last year it received a $2.2 million federal grant from the Office of Justice Programs to keep it afloat for three years.

A Mounting Toll

As of this writing, Oakland is on pace to exceed 100 murders by the end of 2011, a black eye it has avoided only once since 2005. (Oakland police have killed seven people this year, one fewer than cops in New York—a city 20 times as large—slew all last year.) The federal moneys it is currently poised to receive are nothing more than stopgap measures that will maintain the status quo for a few more months. There is real concern that the Oakland Police Department, which is about to slip to record lows of sworn personnel, may be taken into federal receivership after nine years of failing to enact court-mandated reforms stemming from a corruption case in the early 2000s in which four cops routinely framed innocent people for drug-related crime, and assaulted suspects.

Federal receivership is uncharted territory for a police department facing the sort of entrenched violence prevalent in Oakland. If a federal monitor is given control of the OPD, it is very possible that financial decisions on police matters will be taken out of city control, meaning it may have to funnel even more of its budget to hire more police. In the meantime, intervention programs like Weed and Seed and the call-ins are either getting cut or falling prey to political clashes between Oakland’s business community and the city’s combative progressives.

Meanwhile, the killing continues. At press time, there have been 31 murders in Oakland—proportional to 648 additional slayings in a city the size of New York—since 3-year-old Carlos Fernandez Nava died in his red plastic car.