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102 and counting

With Oakland’s homicide rate at 102 as of Monday night, civic leaders, officials and community members lay blame on various factors.

A homicide rate this high has not been seen since 1992 when Oakland’s homicides peaked at 165 following an increase in drug related activities and an unemployment rate of 10 percent according to California’s Employment Development Department. However, George Phillips, the Oakland Police Department public information officer, said, the current increase is not likely to diminish any time soon. Phillips said that this year will probably end with 35 more homicides than last year, an estimated putting this years total rate at 122.

According to Federal statistics, last year the murder rate increased by larger margins in cities with populations between 250,00 to 500,000. Of these, the highest increases were in western cities. Oakland, as a west coast city with a little over 400,000 residents fits directly into the category of cities seeing increases in crime after several years of a growing economy.

“We don’t see this as a police problem. It is a problem facing government, schools and businesses,” said Phillips. “This is part of a larger national trend.”

According to the 2000 census, 16.2 percent of Oakland families live in poverty, while, preliminary data through May of 2002 showed that Oakland had one of the highest unemployment rates, 9.2 percent, when compared to like size cities.

Mike Males, a researcher for San Francisco’s Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and sociology professor at UC Santa Cruz, says that poverty and unemployment are the two largest determinants in the likelihood of homicides.

“Poverty is the big one as well as joblessness. These factors lead to street battles over drug distribution, the most lucrative employment in poorer areas,” he said.

Police say that 80 percent of the homicide victims were in some way involved in the drug trade, either by selling, buying or through involvement in related activities. A majority of the perpetrators and victims did not have a high school diploma. And, 80-85 percent are either on probation or parole or were at some point in the criminal justice system.

Upon leaving prison, Oakland, under law by California’s Department of Corrections, gives parolees an orientation where they are told about the resources available to them. But critics like Males say this is not enough. He says that the increase in homicides this year can largely be attributed to parolees returning from prison terms, and finding no options for employment.

“Most are drug distributors or engaged in other illicit activity, and received no rehabilitation in prison. All police can do is try to manage the mess politics and social policy have made,” Males said.

With 750 police officers and 15 homicide investigators, Phillips says that this year the department has definitely felt a strain on their ability to address the problem, but that this is no reason to hire more officers because of the continually fluctuating numbers.

“This year has been somewhat taxing but we really can’t gage at the beginning of the year how many officers are going to be needed,” he said.

He said more community involvement and reporting of crimes would help the problem. In most cases, he said, the homicides can be attributed to vengeance between groups or individuals.

“What we see is that the community knew [in most cases] that there was a problem between these two groups. If we knew this prior to, we could prevent it,” said Phillips.

However, with the recent arrest of police officers, such as the narcotics officers known as “The Riders,” who are on trial for corruption, the arrest of two narcotics officers in September for soliciting prostitutes, and the firing of a narcotics officer earlier this year, many in the community don’t see community involvement as an option unless the police proves it’s effectiveness.

Christopher Donaldson, Director of Operations at People United for a Better Oakland, says that in his 13 years working with the organization only one thing has changed, police misconduct.

“There has been an increase in police misconduct, and the amount of money that police have been paying in settlements.”

Donaldson said that because of mistakes police have made, the community does not trust the department enough to come forth and become more involved, which the police admit would drastically help their enforcement measures.

Kimpavita Walker, a freshwoman from Oakland, says that because police cannot be trusted, there cannot be such a thing as community involvement with the police.

“They are not doing their job. There is too much police affiliation with half the stuff that is going on. You don’t really need to see it to know that is what is happening. Police have a really bad history with the black community. When you talk about black or poor communities, police are not anyone’s friend,” she said.

According to the Police Department East Oakland accounts for 60 percent of Oakland’s homicides.