Oakland Finally Gets a Handle on Violent Crime

During the last few years, homicides and gun violence have decreased as the police department has solved an increasing number of violent crimes. The secret? Ceasefire.


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Photo by D. Ross Cameron

For the first time in recent memory, Oakland has a violence-reduction strategy that’s working. Since the fall of 2012, when the city relaunched its crime prevention program known as Ceasefire, gun violence and murders have decreased while the Oakland Police Department’s historically low rate for solving crimes has improved dramatically.

“In 25 years of being a cop here, I’ve never seen a strategy like this,” said Capt. Ersie Joyner, who leads OPD’s Ceasefire unit and has worked on dozens of major cases and in federal task forces during his long career in law enforcement.

Pioneered in Boston two decades ago, Ceasefire works through a carrot-and-stick approach. Authorities first identify the people most involved in gun violence and offer them counseling, job training and placement, education, and other social services to help them reintegrate into society. But if they keep committing crimes and are caught, they’re charged with the maximum possible weight of the law, oftentimes in federal court.

Oakland previously attempted to implement Ceasefire in the late Aughts, but it failed to work—mostly because the city was also pursuing a gang injunction strategy at the time that ran counter to the goal of Ceasefire, which is to help people involved in gun violence turn their lives around.

And since the city began focusing on Ceasefire as its primary violence reduction tool, the results have been eye-opening. The number of homicides dropped from 126 in 2012 to 83 last year, while nonfatal shootings plummeted from 557 to 341 during that timeframe.

In addition, the department’s clearance rate for homicides—that is, the percentage of cases it solves each year—rose from a woeful 29 percent in 2011 to 58 percent last year, while the number of gun-related arrests increased from 137 in the first quarter of 2013 to 207 through the first three months of this year.

Instead of overworked investigators placing murder investigations in triage and prioritizing high-profile ones, the Ceasefire team works on specific tasks to assist homicide detectives with their cases on the front-end. “It is profoundly powerful when they solve a crime,” said Sarah Bedford, director of Oakland’s Department of Human Services, which runs the intervention side of Ceasefire. Solving crimes, Bedford said, restores some of the public’s confidence in the police department, which has been under federal oversight for 13 years.

The keys to Oakland’s Ceasefire reboot include in-depth crime analysis sessions called “shooting reviews,” which are conducted by Oakland police and outside law enforcement partners; the restructuring of the Ceasefire intervention strategy to allow for one-on-one “custom notifications” with people involved in violence; and the creation of a dedicated Ceasefire unit of 32 people that reports directly to the chief.

The weekly shooting reviews, which cover every reported incident of gun violence in the city during the preceding seven days, are the foundation. Police examine the criminal histories and relationships of those involved in the incidents and analyze their ties to one or more of the city’s 53 documented gangs. Individuals deemed at risk of violence are then chosen for a group call-in of several individuals or for one-on-one meetings, which can be conducted in less than 24 hours.

During a recent interview at the Police Administration Building in downtown, Chief Sean Whent said the shooting reviews, conducted every Thursday, “are the closet thing to police work I get to do.” Reygan Harmon, a longtime Oakland city staffer who is the Ceasefire project manager, described the detailed shooting reviews as critical. “It’s one thing to say you want to reduce homicides, but it’s another thing to actually understand them,” said Harmon.

“The purpose of going through those shootings is that there’s a scorecard, and from the scorecard we’re able to see which gangs and groups are the most active—because all 53 aren’t active at the same time,” Harmon said. “Thankfully,” Whent added, as Harmon rapped the conference table with her knuckles.

On the intervention side, the results have also been promising. Since 2012, 194 people have participated in Ceasefire, and the number of case managers has similarly risen, from one to 10, thanks to the passage of the crime-prevention parcel tax Measure Z by Oakland voters in 2014. Of those 194 people, five have been killed since 2012 and 37 arrested—34 of those for violent offenses. However, the majority of Ceasefire participants have stayed out of harm’s way, with 164 of them—84 percent—accepting social services. A forthcoming evaluation of the intervention services and outcomes for participants will provide more detail about how successful Oakland Ceasefire’s intervention component has been over the years.

The one-on-one meetings, meanwhile, have become the most frequent means of contact with participants. In 2015, there were 215 such contacts, up from 85 in 2014 and just 22 in the two years prior. The meetings usually include a police officer, a social worker, and a pastor or other community representative. “The message is received in a very different way when a community member delivers it,” said George Cummings, a pastor with Oakland Community Organizations and a Ceasefire partner.

James Hopkins, pastor at Lakeshore Baptist Church, has been in Oakland since 1989 and has seen countless anti-violence efforts fail to produce positive results. Since the fall of 2013, Ceasefire call-ins have been hosted at his church rather than at City Hall or the Police Administrative Building, because it’s a neutral setting and not one that participants might feel is confrontational.

“In the past, there was a prevalent narrative that Oakland’s violence was caused by everybody shooting at everybody,” Hopkins said. “Ceasefire’s focus of our attention on a few individuals at risk, pushing the idea that this was a manageable problem—that was a sea change.”

From a policing perspective, the sharpened focus has dovetailed with the department’s “procedural justice” training, which is aimed at improving officer conduct and their relationships with Oakland residents. OPD’s Joyner recounted a recent incident in which his officers arrested four men with guns in deep East Oakland. During a review with intervention workers, he learned that they were having a difficult time talking to people whose homes had been raided or searched the day before. “I told my sergeant to go back to the scene of that arrest and explain why they made those collars,” Joyner said. “He said, ‘I didn’t think you were serious, captain.’ So I got on him, and they went back to the scene. The next day, a citizen who they gave their number to called and told them there was one man who got away from that scene, and that he was out on the street with a gun right now.” That arrest, Joyner said, would not have happened without the citizen calling back.

Joyner’s officers also have taken violent offenders off the street in situations that could have ended very differently. On April 27, Officers Kyle Dickson and Robert Spring were tracking a Ceasefire participant when they saw Nathaniel Thompson shoot Corey White on 69th Avenue and International Boulevard. They pursued and arrested Thompson after he tossed his gun and fled, also arresting a woman who picked up the weapon. White survived the incident. “As far as I’m concerned, they saved two lives that night by stopping Thompson from killing him and not shooting an armed suspect,” Joyner said.

Joyner, who does 85 percent of the one-on-one meetings himself, said he has visited Ceasefire subjects in hospital trauma wards, jail, or at their homes to let them know of the help available to them. Young men he has reached out to have shown up at OPD headquarters asking for Joyner and his help in landing jobs. “I’m more proud of the work we’re doing today than the work we were doing in 1995,” said Joyner, who was awarded a departmental medal in 1995 for hundreds of drug and violence-related arrests.

There also is evidence that OPD’s new approach is helping move the department slowly toward compliance with the federally mandated reforms concerning office misconduct. Internal affairs cases have trended downward since the first quarter of 2012, when 538 complaints were filed against police. Through March 2016, 255 complaints were made against Oakland police officers.

“We are heavily invested in violent crime reductions in Oakland—to the expense of some other things that are important,” Whent said, explaining that the department’s investment in Ceasefire has decreased its capacity in other areas, such as property crime and fraud. But he asserted that “from a morality perspective, I think that’s what we have to do—lots of bad things happen to people, but nothing is more serious than people getting shot and killed.”

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