Wouldn’t it be great if the real world functioned like the television show Law & Order? Passionate Detectives jettisoning around town, questioning, grilling, cleverly extracting confessions, jailing and ultimately convicting criminals all in a tidy, efficient manner? Well, we all know it doesn’t work that way in real life … the real-life drama unfolding in Oakland, CA is a lot closer to mirroring the HBO series “the Wire” that exposed the bureaucracy and dysfunction happening between the city government, police unions, school system and gangsters in Baltimore, MD.
As our neighboring city grapples with police unions over pensions & salaries, it’s the residents that suffer as criminals have become more emboldened than ever to commit acts that they know they will not be accountable for. Even daytime shootings and brazen robberies like this one to a group of Carpoolers have become commonplace. One headline after another of shocking events that are getting less & less “shocking”. Events like the senseless killing of Aya Nakano last June 12th. Nakano was gunned down in cold-blood after a fender-bender along Stanford on his way home from a pick-up basketball game an hour before his 23rd Birthday. The soul-less cowards that outnumbered the slight-of-build 125 lb man apparently needed the most cowardly of all weapons to resolve this dispute. The act was appalling, as was the lack of concern that Oakland’s Mayor seems to have and the lack of collective outrage from its citizens. The saddest thing about this tragedy is how quickly this seems to be accepted as “the new normal” in Oakland. One has to wonder if it’s about time for a little tough love for Oakland … and if the resources even exist for Oakland to protect its own citizens. While the Travon Martin tragedy that happened 3000 miles away sparked an outrage in the city and led to protests & riots in downtown, the city seems numb to the killings happening in its own backyard. Murders of our own are barely unacknowledged. There was no rally at City Hall for Aya or any of the other 68 Oakland homicide victims this year.
I sat down with Aya’s parents Maria & Jean. They’re bound by law to not reveal any details of the pending case but are clearly frustrated with the lack of action. “My tongue is bleeding from biting it for so long” says Maria. It’s hard not to get angry after listening to their frustrations and understanding their pain. They gave me a memory book full of photos of Aya. On the cover is “#45” representing the sequential number of his murder in Oakland in 2013. Since then, an additional 24 murders have occurred as of September 4th, placing the city’s homicide tally at 69 and on pace to eclipse the century mark for the 7th time in the last 8 years. “I created this book in the hopes that you get to know the wonderful young man Aya was and why his passing leaves such gaping hole in the hearts of everyone who knew and love him. Mine certainly will not heal, even when we catch the perpetrators who robbed me of my pride and joy. But it will afford me some measure of peace that I did my best to find justice for my Aya though it will not bring him back to me”.
Political figures such as Oakland District 4 Councilmember Libby Schaaf, Congresswoman Barbara Lee & Senator Diane Feinstein have reached out and issued their condolences and Emeryville’s Mayor Kurt Brinkman has personally pledged $1000 toward Aya’s reward fund but as of this writing, their has been zero acknowledgment from Oakland’s Mayor Jean Quan or anyone from her political camp. This was salt on the wound for Aya’s mother Maria. “Considering that the crime happened in her city, you’d think Mayor Quan would at least have the humanity to offer words of condolence to what is clearly a terrible injustice”. When pressed, she does not back down from her stance on Mayor Quan’s leadership “No words of condolence, nothing that would indicate compassion or sympathy from the mayor herself or her staff. I am most certainly disgusted with the kind of leadership she has demonstrated. Walking along the streets of East Oakland (referring to Quans’ recent series of neighborhood walks) does not reflect courage, political or otherwise, neither does it reflect compassion for the dozens of families who have lost their loved ones to the unabated gun violence in Oakland.”
Crime is Oakland’s Albatross
Oakland is a great city with so much potential to be even greater. It is a city that is in midst of renaissance and there have been many comparisons to what Brooklyn is experiencing on the opposite side of the country … but it will never achieve this if it can’t get a grip on crime. Whatever victories Oakland can claim recently … First Fridays, revitalization of Temescal, The Golden Gate, etc. are because of the spirit & will of some passionate residents. Oakland is thriving despite this dysfunction and City officials deserve little credit.
If you haven’t read this open break up letter to Oakland, it sums it up pretty well. For all of Oakland’s amenities and beauty, it doesn’t matter much when you lose your sense of personal safety for your family.
According to this Atlantic article, Oakland is the sixth “most dangerous” city in the country. In addition:
- 9th highest rate of murder and 10th highest rate of rape
- Highest rate of robbery in the country
- 1500 incidents of gun violence last year resulted in only 117 arrests (8%)
The reputation of Oakland’s ability to protect its citizens is at a fragile point. Story after story of the inability of the city to catch criminals seems to have emboldened them to act with impunity. Police response is lethargic (if at all) and the conviction rates are amongst the lowest in the country. That inability of Oakland to protect itself has but neighboring communities such as ours at risk. Regardless of anyones theories of how to reduce these statistics long-term, Oakland needs action now and defending the city should be the highest priority.
Can the city afford to keep its citizens safe?
It just doesn’t seem like residents can rely on the OPD for protection. More & more, neighborhood groups like the Temescal merchant association are hiring private security to patrol and defend their neighborhoods. Oakland has roughly 611 sworn officers (Apparently of which only 10% actually live in Oakland) down from a peak of approximately 800 in 2008 after a series of cutbacks. With a recent federal grant and graduating class, Oakland is looking to restore its ranks back closer to 800. Oakland’s roughly 16.5 officers per 10,000 residents is amongst the lowest ratio’s of any large city. One officer I spoke with suggested Oakland needed probably twice as many officers to contain the violence that the city has become known for. Compounding the lack of staffing is the well-publicized human resources bottleneck that is preventing the OPD from staffing up.
OPD Officers are amongst the highest paid in the nation. While the OPD site lists current entry-level annual salary at $69,912 – $98,088, the actual cost to taxpayers according to former Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente is closer to $200,000 per sworn officer after benefits. Perhaps this is what it takes to recruit officers to patrol one of the most violent city’s in the nation … but it comes at the impractical, unsustainable cost to taxpayers.
Oaklanders “No-Snitch” Culture and the obligation of residents.
Obviously, the police can’t do it alone and working against them is (whether warranted or not) the historic distrust between residents & cops fueled by recent events. This distrust and Oakland’s “No-Snitch” culture has created a lack of cooperation by residents with the police. No witness = No conviction. The threat of retaliation or of being ostracized by the community has created a stalemate that needs to be remedied. In addition, there seems to be a civil-liberties microscope over the OPD that is waiting for them to make a mistake. One officer I spoke with said there were more internal investigations happening than actual criminal investigations. The City & the Feds seems more focussed on busting Police officers than criminals. It’s a wonder why the morale of the OPD is so low.
Community policing, technology, social networking, there are a myriad of ways for residents to fight back and reclaim the power from the criminals of Oakland. I’m convinced that if everyone got involved just a little, we could make a huge impact in our communities. The thugs of Oakland are no match for the 400,000 mostly good residents if they organize. And for Emeryville residents, It’s time to stop pretending that there’s some invisible wall between us and Oakland. Oakland’s problems are our problems.
Aya’a parents are determined to get justice for their son. Keeping his name in the headlines, following up on his case and collecting reward contributions has become a full-time job for them. The sheer number of homicides in Oakland, the relative short-attention span of the media and indifference of a majority of residences combined with the lack of resources of the OPD has stacked the odds against them. When asked if they will stay in Emeryville, Maria pauses for a moment. You can see the pain in here face as she fights back the tears that have become commonplace for her “If the feeling gets too oppressive … we may have to leave”. Aya’s book is 113 pages long and it contains photos, excerpts and contributions from his friends and family. It ends as such: “Let justice prevail over the untimely passing of a miracle that is you, Aya. Until we see each other again”
Resources & Further Reading:
Are More Cops the Answer? | East Bay Express
More in Oakland relying on private security | SF Gate
Oakland Police Caught Between Reform and Crime Surge | NY Times
Who is Aya Nakano? | Berkeley Patch
Oakland Has More Robberies Than Any City In America | Huffington Post
The 10 Most Dangerous Cities in America | The Atlantic
Crime up in Oakland, much of Bay Area | Sf Gate
Jean Quan wins Oakland mayor’s race | SF Gate
Mother of young man shot in Oakland after fender bender holds out hope for new information | abc7news.com
Oakland police need help, but jobs unfilled | SF Chronicle
Oakland Police Department leader shifts focus to hiring more cops | Inside Bay Area
Oakland Needs A Plan , Op-Ed by Council member Desley Brooks | Oakland Local
Oakland’s Other Crime Problem: Unsolved Homicides | KQED News
Oakland Struggles to Cope as Crime Surges | WSJ
End ‘no-snitch’ culture for sake of community
Oakland Police Department is losing its morale as crime rises | Examiner