An Assembly hearing focusing on rising gun violence in the East Bay instead evolved into a string of community and faith-based leaders clamoring for answers over how to heal what they say is the root cause of violence in places like Oakland: socio-economic despair.
Oakland Assemblyman Rob Bonta, chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Gun Violence in the East Bay brought three panels of local officials, youth counselors and pastors together Friday to discuss the continuing rise even in crime less than 24 hours after the city suffered two more homicides Thursday night. Thirty-seven homicides have occurred in Oakland this year.
Even as an ambitious package of gun control bills sponsored by Bonta, Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner and State Sen. Loni Hancock wind through the Legislature, most panelists instead chose to focus on ideas that will foster hope, rather than the need to pick up a firearm and shoot.
Olis Simmons, a community organizer with Oakland’s Youth UpRising says gang activity — the often mentioned cause of gun violence — is not the issue. “It’s a clique issue,” she says, resulting from staggering unemployment in Oakland, especially in the black and Latino community, and fear. “They carry guns not because they’re a predator, but because they’re desperate to feel safe.”
“This is a public health crisis,” said Pastor Zack Carey of Oakland’s True Vine Ministries. “They’re shooting each other because there’s no jobs.”
Richmond’s charismatic director of Neighborhood Safety DeVone Boggan said he has heard many of the same solutions over the past two decades to no avail. The impetus should be on helping the youth make better decisions to avoid conflicts when they invariably occur on the streets, he said. “Help us to understand what is required to motivate you to put your gun down,” Boggan said. “When you truly want to live, you make better decisions.”
Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin, whose rapidly growing Central Valley city, like Oakland, has both high rates of crime along with a large minority population, says community policing has helped foster trust between residents and law enforcement, and forced those in need take advantage of various local social programs. You can’t rely on troubled residents to seek out the programs on their own, he says. Instead, his officers take the programs to their front door.
He also his instructs officers to immerse themselves in the community while eschewing zero tolerance strategies to create safe neighborhoods. When events necessitate the use of police force, McMillin says, the community is far more understanding if there is perception law enforcement had already done everything they could in the past. However, he says, “Some people are just too dangerous and need to be locked up.” McMillin realizes his strategy is also costly. “It is expensive. It’s a question of resources,” he said, “but it absolutely works.”
Many at Friday’s hearing agree the rise in gun violence would be better framed as a public health crisis. Dr. Randi Smith, a surgeon-in-training at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, says the vast majority of patients she sees in the emergency room are predominately black and Latinos consistently delivered from the same streets in Oakland. They are also repeat customers, she says.
Citing a national statistics, Smith says 44 percent of young blacks who experience a gunshot wound will likely receive another in the next five years. It is not uncommon, Smith says, for doctors treating patients for single-entry bullet wounds at Highland to notice previous gunshot wounds on x-rays. Sadly, Smith says, “There’s a revolving door of gun violence.”