What Counts: In Conversation about Public Safety

a bandaid covers a cracked ground
police line do not cross caution tape

When every outlet from CNN to Fox leads with Oakland’s unprecedented crime wave, it causes concern and invites fear. But what does it mean? Really.

California is among the 20 most dangerous states in America. Nine of the 100 most dangerous cities in the country are in California. According to FBI data, the crime rate in Oakland is 210.59% higher than the national rate. 

It is higher than Berkeley, with a crime rate of 126.04% higher than the national average, and higher than San Francisco at 149.33% higher than the national average. 

Per capita, Stockton has a higher violent crime rate than Oakland, coming in 9th to Oakland’s 13th on a list of 20 of the most violent cities in America by population in 2021. 

According to the numbers, Oakland is the 5th most dangerous and the 13th most violent. The numbers are not a great representation but also reflect that Oakland is not the most violent or dangerous city in the state or the nation. So why is it leading the news in every outlet across the country? 

There is a story in the numbers.

Numbers tell stories about what you look for, the things you count, but what are we looking for in these numbers, and are we looking at a whole story? What is the moral of the story?  Is there more to be known than what the things counted show?

There is evidence that America is having a surge in lawlessness. There is a more nuanced conversation pondering the causes and the nature of the crime surge. In 2020, American murders rose by 30%, the sharpest rise in a century as the overall crime rate declined. According to crime analyst Jeff Asher, data from US cities reflect an over 14% increase in 2021.

The increase in violent crime is not a blip. It is a trend.

Something bigger than Oakland is happening; it would probably be a good thing for all of us if addressed what is driving the phenomenon of increased violence.

There is speculation about correlations of rising crime rates and the passage of Propositions 47 and 57. Data supports the rise in property crime but shows little relation between these propositions and violent crime. In statistical data, “California’s crime rates remain historically low. While violent crime rates increased by about 13 percent after Proposition 47, this trend appears to have preceded the reform—and was sparked by changes in crime reporting by the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).” 

Some cite the positive outcome of Prop 47 in monetary savings and the reduction of recidivism. The decline in recidivism could have a long-reaching effect on the quality of life for the web of people affected by mass incarceration if allowed a long enough run to have an impact. 

Locally, and reflected in national conversations on multiple outlets, some associate calls to reimagine the police with the delegitimization of policing, counter-protesting by police, or imagined “defunding” of police as a causal factor. 

The shared experience of a global pandemic forced attention to a litany of disparities. The televised murder of George Floyd sparked a national conversation about policing to a backdrop to massive public protest.

Cat Brooks offers, “Since Defunding the Police became a dominant narrative, the amount of misinformation spread obscures the benefit of shifting funding away from things we don’t need police to do. We don’t need armed officers for mental health interventions. We don’t need them to do traffic stops.” Brooks points out, “If OPD were freed of these tasks, they could concentrate on more serious crimes.”

The measurable trend in violence and any substantive movement to allocate funding to preventative strategies do not align with the trend as neatly as the pandemic, attention to inequity, and murders that made national headlines. 

The rise in the murder rate in California is a part of a national trend that began in 2020 with measurable increases in Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley, and Hayward. Oakland has reported over 120 murders as of early December 2021, after reporting 102 homicides in 2020. There were 74 in 2019, a sevenfold increase from the year before. Murder has been and continues to trend.

There is another way to look at the numbers, the Metropolitan Statistics, in which the SF-Redwood City area is among the 10 most dangerous metro areas. With this data set, one can extrapolate numbers that articulate a more complex set of triggers. Perhaps this can help us understand what is by all counts the most violent time in America since the 1990s.

People in these metros are more likely to live below the poverty line.

  • The percentage of people in the most dangerous metros who live below the poverty line is 27% higher than the US average.

Salaries in these metros are lower than the national average.

  • On average, households in the most dangerous cities bring in nearly $20,000 less than households in the safest metro areas.
  • San Francisco and Anchorage are the exceptions, with annual median household incomes of $130,000 and $80,000 respectively.

These metros spend less on public safety than the safest cities we ranked.

  • The most dangerous metros spend around 15% less on public safety than the safest big cities.

These metros spend less on community services than the safest cities we ranked.

  • The percentage of city budgets dedicated to community resources in the most dangerous metros is 58% lower than what is allocated in the safest big cities.

These metros have fewer high school graduates than the average American city.

  • The most dangerous metros have about 2.5% fewer high school grads than most US cities.

These metros have higher unemployment rates than the average American city.

  • The average unemployment rate among the most dangerous metros (6.9%) is nearly two percentage points higher than in the safest metros (5.0%).

Morgan Williams, a Wagner Graduate School of Public Service economist, objectively analyzes the impact of adding police to a city as a methodology for producing public safety. He finds adding more police officers to the ‘average’ city could save lives. He estimates one life could be saved at between $1.3 and $2.2 million to hire an average of 10 to 17 officers. Black life would be saved at twice the rate of white since Blacks are more likely to live in areas below the poverty level and have high homicide rates. Note that while more officers reduce serious crime, it also reduces the arrests for serious crime, suggesting that arrest is not the driving factor in reducing the rate. The mere concentration of police acts as a deterrent.

Williams also found that police concentration leads to more arrests for low-level crimes and disproportionately targets people of color. He surmises, “We get plenty of policing, but not the type of policing that keeps people safe.”

a bandaid covers a cracked ground

Supporting solutions that aim at the root causes of crime would ultimately be the most effective way to eradicate cycles of violence by affecting systemic change in long-lasting, equitable, and human-centered practices. There are corollaries in the Metro statistical findings and the McCone Commission that identified the root causes of the Watts rebellions to be high unemployment, poor schools, and related inferior living conditions endured by African Americans. The disparities in the social determinants of health for Black people in America and, in particular, those living in dense poverty-burdened areas with poor educational returns, inadequate housing, and high crime rates have not measurably improved. 

Williams concludes Black people suffer from being under- and over-policed and that police that arrest people of color for low-level crimes help perpetuate negative cycles. The cost runs from entanglement with the legal system, economically crippling legal expense, and fines to lifelong stigma, lost opportunity, and broken homes.  

Locally, the response to the national trend in violence seems mired in a discussion about policing and the number of police it requires to provide safety in the streets of Oakland. 

These conversations seem aimed at undoing a historic shift in funding focus in the City. The Department of Violence Prevention gained the resources required to implement programming to disrupt violence. That funding came from redirecting financing that would have gone to Police Academies. It did not take budget away from the Police Department; it reallocated some of its potential increased funding to violence prevention. 

Mayor Schaaf wants to amend the budget, insisting, “We must immediately add two more recruit training academies and maintain more officers next year than currently budgeted.” This will require a budget amendment that will come to the City Council on December 7th for a vote.

Mayoral Candidate Sheng Thao plans to “direct the City Administrator to immediately hire an independent recruiting firm who will partner with the City in a nationwide search for experienced, talented, committed, and community-focused patrol officers and investigators with diverse backgrounds and no history of misconduct. Under my plan, these lateral officers would receive a $50,000 hiring bonus to come to Oakland.”

None of the solutions that involve increased policing would directly affect the violence locally in the immediate sense. Academies would not put officers on the streets until 2023. 

Last year, Oakland City Council passed a resolution that directs OPD to reduce the number of illegal guns and makes ending gun violence a top public safety priority. Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas advocates for an immediate increase of police presence in troubled spots like Chinatown, San Antonio, and Eastlake neighborhoods. Bas told the Mercury News the department already was authorized to employ 737 officers this year, and filling those positions should be the department’s top priority. “I really think it’s important that we focus on filling those vacancies and really ensuring that we’re getting the results that we need from the police during this incredibly difficult time.” 

Perhaps we should ask what we want to happen, and then we would better understand what we need to do to get that result. 

What we have is not working. Change is imperative. Change must have enough time to take hold, and it must be resourced. To get the results we want, we need to have higher solve rates for violent crime. We need to arrest less and prevent more. We need to invest in people to address the disparities in the social determinants of health. We need to give these efforts time to produce results, and we should be as persistent with these alternate strategies as we have been about locking people up.  

Polar swings will only reproduce the status quo. If you had an uncared for and infected wound and thought that cleaning it might help, you need to stay the course. You can’t disinfect it, cover it today, and hope it’s healed in the morning. The longer the wound went unchecked—the longer it may take to heal. Going back to the failure to care for the wound will not accelerate the healing.

Author Profile

Ayodele Nzinga is an arts and culture theoretician/practitioner working at the intersections of cultural production, community development, and community well being to foster transformation in marginalized communities. Nzinga holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Writing and Consciousness and Doctorate of Philosophy in Transformative Education & Change; she resides in Oakland, CA. Described as a renaissance woman, Ayodele is a producing director, playwright, poet, dramaturg, actress, performance consultant, arts educator, community advocate, and a culture bearing anchor. Ayodele is the first poet laureate of Oakland.

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