Oakland’s homicide rate: we study it, write about it, talk about it, and in some devastating cases, experience it. News anchors report on it without even blinking — a string of words that, when iterated time after time again, can become more an assemblage of sounds than an urgent symbol of our city’s well-being.

Like with all horrible things that happen in the world, we want answers on how stop it. We know that socioeconomic, cultural, and political factors are all moving parts of what leads to crime. Homicide numbers in Oakland have been decreasing over the past few years, but has Oakland found a definite strategy to alleviate these factors that we can point to as a cause for drops in numbers?

There have been many studies and reports aiming to gauge patterns in Oakland’s fluctuating homicide numbers, mainly to see which community and city interventions, if any, are working. Nicole Lee, executive director of Urban Peace Movement notes that, “It’s such a multi-layered issue. The economy could be a determinant of the homicide rate, but then there’s local conflict and retaliation which is harder to predict.”

At the height of the crack epidemic of the ’90s, Lee said, Oakland along with many major cities across the nation saw a directly correlated spike in violent crime.

As of the new year, there have been 17 homicides in Oakland, the most recent having been the shooting of 14-year-old Davon Ellis on February 28th. While Oakland’s homicide numbers have reputedly been on a downward trend, this year so far has seen the highest number of aggravated assaults since 2009.

This begs the question then — does a dropping homicide rate necessarily mean a less violent city?

Josie Halpern-Finnerty, program planner at Oakland Unite, explains: “Homicides are a useful indicator of what’s happening with violence because the data is usually very well tracked. It’s important to look at other indicators as well, like shooting incidents or other types of violence, like domestic violence, within aggravated assault, but homicides and aggravated assaults do tend to track pretty well together over time.”

It seems like population size has little to do with amount of murders but could correspond with amount of violence: For the months of January and February, 2009 had 8 homicides and 2010 had 7. When Oakland’s population dropped by about 17,500 people in 2010, the number of reported aggravated assaults was nearly half that of 2009’s YTD.

Frank Zimring, a UC Berkeley criminal law professor, points out in this article that there’s always been this “see-saw” semblance of homicide numbers in Oakland.

“Predicting who will commit murder is nearly impossible,” says Sanjay Marway, assistant professor of criminal justice administration at CSU East Bay. Marway highlighted a study done by University of Texas at Dallas that suggests two distinguishing commonalities in people who commit murder: having a lower IQ and having been exposed to violence.

“Any prediction of crime is situational — looking at what’s likely to increase the probabilities of violent crime. We have to look at characteristics present in particular situations strongly associated with violence,” says Marwah.

Halpern-Finnerty speaks to the success of Oakland Unite’s programs. “Our evaluators look at re-arrest rates for participants to get a sense of whether programs are having their intended effect. Only 20 percent of our participants had a re-arrest within the following two years of their involvement with the program.” In California, 60 percent of people are re-arrested in the year following their release date.

Though we can’t substantiate what exactly it is that definitely subdues violent crime and homicide rates across the board, Oakland continues to design new strategies and tweak existing ones in hopes to turn the tables in favor of collective safety and security.

“Although Oakland has seen a reduction in our homicide rate in recent years, typically it remains 3 to 6 times the state average. We’ve had a fairly stable problem with homicide for many years,” Halpern-Finnerty acknowledges. “Being able to shift that trend will take sustained efforts on a number of levels.”

About The Author

Simone writes about the currents circulating beneath mainstream, with a focus on non-profit developments and at-risk youth enrichment. Outside of freelancing for Oakland Local, she works in the foster care system of Contra Costa County and nerds out on literary magazines. Simone also spearheads the Community Voices section of OL. Contact her at simonelarson@oaklandlocal.com

One Response

  1. oakland insider

    I would pay attention to where the assaults are reported. More reported assaults due to increase people visiting and going out in oakland. The great recession had the inverse effect.


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