Oakland Mayor Calls for Action to Stem Violence
Faced with an explosive increase in his city’s murder rate, Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris called Tuesday for emergency measures to combat violence, including a voluntary 10 p.m. curfew for juveniles, mandatory arrests in family assault cases and closure of liquor stores and bars where drugs are a problem.
The mayor, who last week declared Oakland “under siege” by violent criminals, also asked for new laws that would send parents to jail if their children used firearms, allow only registered gun owners to buy ammunition and require the forfeiture of any vehicle in which a concealed weapon is found.
“Our city is in dire distress from the wave of violence that has been building over the last 10 years,” Harris said. “The homicide figures since the beginning of this year have certainly brought us to a critical mass where we must take some action.”
Oakland, already with the highest murder rate of any large city in California, has been plagued by a rash of senseless slayings that has overwhelmed police detectives and set residents on edge.
Since the first of the year, 55 people have been murdered, up from 31 during the same period last year. During a bloody 24 hours last week, seven people were found slain in four separate incidents.
A week earlier, a 40-year-old woman and her two teen-age daughters were gunned down in the middle of the night as they slept in their beds. Last month, a gunman walked into a crowded bar and opened fire, killing three people and wounding seven others.
Police place much of the blame on the city’s booming drug trade, which has sparked turf battles, revenge killings and murders over drug deals. But domestic fights and armed robberies also have led to slayings.
“There doesn’t seem to be any one trend,” said Lt. Mike Simms, the head of Oakland’s homicide department. “It’s obvious there are more dope-related cases. And when these people shoot at each other, innocent people get killed.”
In an attempt to reverse the tide of murder and other violent crime in the city of 372,000, Mayor Harris on Tuesday outlined a 15-point program that combines tougher enforcement with increased job training and after-school programs for the city’s youths.
For now, the mayor decided against adopting the more extreme proposals he was considering, such as declaring a state of emergency or setting up checkpoints around the city where police officers could search vehicles for weapons and drugs. Instead, he chose a course aimed, in part, at making parents more responsible for the actions of their children.
Harris urged parents to impose a voluntary curfew on youngsters under 18 and keep them indoors after 10 p.m. unless they have a good reason to be outside, such as going to or from work.
“I do not want our children out roaming the streets, looking for trouble or unnecessarily putting themselves in harm’s way,” said Harris, who has been in office 14 months. “By implementing this voluntary curfew, parents can do their part to help reduce the crime in Oakland.”
As insurance, however, Harris also called on the City Council to enact a “thoughtful, rational"--and constitutional--law to make the curfew mandatory.
Shifting away from the predominant law enforcement policy of going after drug dealers, the mayor called on police to focus attention on drug purchasers, who he said mostly come from outside Oakland. These drug users, he said, “have turned impoverished communities into supermarkets for drugs.”
Other elements of the mayor’s proposal include:
* Revoking the business permits of liquor stores and bars where loitering and drug dealing are a problem.
* Adopting a policy of “zero tolerance” for domestic violence and requiring police to arrest anyone accused of assaulting a family member--even if the victim declines to press charges.
* Providing job training, midnight basketball and other recreational and social services in the city’s largest housing project, often a center of drug dealing and crime.
Harris also is seeking approval of a tough city ordinance that would prohibit the use of “projectile weapons” including BB guns, pellet guns, dart guns, slingshots and crossbows. Minors would be prohibited from owning such weapons; parents could be fined or sent to jail if their children used projectile weapons or firearms.
“We are basically asking that parents exercise greater parental control and responsibility on the activities of their children,” the mayor said.
Some of the mayor’s proposals can be enacted immediately. Others will require new sources of money, approval of the Oakland City Council or passage of new laws in he state Legislature.
Oakland’s 55th murder of the year occurred early Tuesday morning, just hours before the mayor unveiled his program. A 28-year-old woman was shot in the chest as she rode in a car in East Oakland. Police did not disclose a motive, but Lt. Simms described the crime as a “really senseless shooting.”
Some Oakland residents believe the rise in murders stems from a lack of jobs, overwhelming poverty and cutbacks in federal assistance to cities over the past decade. Many young people, inured to violence by television and frustrated by the lack of opportunities, have turned to drugs and violence, they say.
“There are no incentives for young people,” said Norman L. Johnson, a retired auto repossessor who lives in West Oakland. “Now the situation is there’s nothing for the kids to do after school. We need more training.”
Added Bernard Ashcraft, an Oakland human resources consultant: “America helps its rich and ignores its least fortunate. It’s not just an Oakland problem. It’s an American problem.”
Oakland has set a city record for the number of murders each of the last four years. The totals have risen from 124 in 1988 to 165 last year, an annual per capita murder rate far higher than that of Los Angeles or New York. At the current pace, the city will record 230 slayings this year.
The escalation in violence comes as the city attempts to improve its negative image and attract new investment and tourists.
“It’s definitely a problem we have to face,” said mortgage broker Bruce Folkins. “But it’s not a problem exclusive to Oakland. I feel safe here. There’s no place I’d rather live.”
The mayor, who generated much of the controversy himself by talking about a state of emergency, bristled this week at the nickname “Murderville” pinned on Oakland by the San Francisco Examiner.
For months, the mayor pushed for removal of the “Entering Oakland” signs at the city’s borders, arguing that they sounded like a warning. The city finally replaced all those signs last week with “‘Welcome to Oakland.” That day, seven people were murdered.
Since the beginning of 1992, there have been 55 murders in Oakland. If this pace continues, by year’s end there will be 230 slayings and a murder rate of 61.8 per 100,000 population. Here is a look at the 1990 murder rates for selected U.S. cities.
CITY POPULATION MURDERS RATE *Washington 606,900 472 77.8 *Detroit 1,027,901 582 56.6 *Oakland 372,242 146 39.2 *Miami 358,548 129 36.0 *New York City 7,322,564 2,245 30.6 *Los Angeles 3,485,398 983 28.2 *Santa Ana 293,742 43 14.6 *San Diego 1,110,549 135 12.2
SOURCE: FBI Uniform Crime Reports for the U.S.
Compiled by Times researcher Michael Meyers