It’s not often that a downward trend is something to celebrate, but this one definitely is: assuming that statistics continue as they are, the number of shootings in Oakland in 2013 is likely to be lower than it was in 2012. Given that the city was well on the way to being considered one of the most dangerous places in America after the staggering 131 people killed in shootings last year, this year’s comparative drop to 84 is very good news.
Oakland still has a long way to go, but it might be turning a corner, even as citizens insist that they need their own private police forces to protect themselves from nonviolent crimes like robberies.
Many observers are curious about what’s causing the murder rate to drop, and whether it’s a blip or a genuine shift in the statistics. While some movement in shooting rates from year to year can be expected, this is a radical decline. The heart of the answer may lie in Operation Ceasefire, an innovative program that’s been put on the ground in a number of U.S. cities to reduce rates of violent crime. Oakland actually tried it three years ago but was unable to sustain it: now, the city has community support, and it’s seen radical results since it was implemented in late 2012.
Ceasefire involves several approaches. Community leaders including educators, clergy and law enforcement meet with members of gangs and other violent groups to discuss city violence, strongly recommend alternative paths and warn them about the consequences of failing to change their lifestyles. At the same time, however, they reach out with offers of help and support for those who are interested in turning away from gang life. This creates opportunities for people who might feel trapped in violent situations, and can create a ripple effect on the street.
In addition, leaders join periodic night walks to reach out and talk with at-risk youth and create a presence in communities known to experience high rates of violence. Their activities are designed to build community, create additional opportunities for outreach, and generate a presence, sending a clear message that people care and are watching communities for signs of violence. In addition to these community-based strategies, law enforcement coordinate on gang monitoring and activity to enable rapid crackdowns in the event that violence does break out.
The program also works to prevent recidivism with its community-based approach, creating alternatives to returning to crime after spending time in jail and prison. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are hard at work on improving community relations, which can be a tough task in a city like Oakland where many people are understandably nervous around law enforcement or skeptical about getting help when they need it.
Will it work for Oakland this time? Signs are promising, given that shootings are down so dramatically in the city in comparison to last year, but it remains to be seen. As always, multiple factors are likely at work, and some of them may only be apparent after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. 2013 has also, for example, marked a crackdown on gun crime and a growth in worries about guns as a result of multiple acts of mass violence in 2012.
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