OAKLAND — This city's beleaguered Police Department entered 2013 in full defensive mode. The crime rate had soared. Staffing was off sharply. And memories of the heavy-handed police response to Occupy protests 14 months earlier — and the lawsuits it generated — remained fresh.
Scrambling for a turnaround, elected leaders hired out-of-state consultants to overhaul policing strategy and launched the first new police academies in years to beef up the force. The federal judge overseeing a settlement agreement over racial profiling and the beating and framing of suspects named a compliance director, giving him near-total control over the department.
The chief stepped down and an interim leader — the fourth in a tumultuous four years — took the reins.
Now, it appears that some of the work is paying off. Year-end data show homicides down by nearly 30% — as low as they've been since 2002. Shootings, as well as commercial and residential burglaries, were down too.
Robberies climbed, but particular progress was noted in the second half of the year in curbing them. By the end of July, robberies were up from the same time the previous year by 30% — and those involving a gun had climbed by a startling 50%. By year's end, those increases had dropped by half, to 15% and 25% respectively, data show.
Civic leaders here are quick to note that crime remains unacceptably high, and headlines of seemingly senseless killings provide a regular reminder.
A 13-year-old boy — an avid basketball player and drummer in his school band – was gunned down as he walked home from a New Year's Eve event at the Boys and Girls Club. Just this week, a 17-year-old girl was shot and killed at home. The suspect is her 14-year old brother, who had just fought with her about his laundry.
Still, the overall trend is pointing down.
"In the last couple of months, we really started to see the nose-diving," Interim Police Chief Sean Whent said, celebrating in particular the drop in violent crime. "There are fewer shootings, fewer murders," he said. "That's the real goal."
It is not entirely clear what spurred the drop, but interviews with police, city officials and community leaders suggest that a crackdown on two of Oakland's most violent gangs — in March and August — helped curtail not only the murder rate but also robberies, which have largely replaced street drug sales as a key source of gang income.
The East Oakland gangs targeted by multi-agency enforcement efforts were engaging in tit-for-tat killings in their own neighborhoods, but heading to North Oakland and the city's Lake Merritt district to pull off robberies, Whent said.
City officials have said the enforcement came as part of "Ceasefire," a carrot-and-stick program championed by Mayor Jean Quan. Under the program, which has shown success in Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, violent perpetrators are called in by community leaders, clergy and law enforcement and told to cease their activities and accept help rehabilitating — or suffer harsh consequences.
Oakland's previous Ceasefire efforts fell flat because of inconsistent enforcement and a lack of services, but both have been enhanced.
Still, it remains unclear whether incentives in the current program will ultimately dissuade young men from the gang life, or whether those performing outreach have enough street credibility to bring about change.
The stick, however, appears to be working. A March 2013 sweep netted 17 members of the Case Boys Gang on charges that included conspiracy to commit murder, assault with a firearm, fraud, pimping and pandering.
And in two August operations, more than a dozen defendants, among them alleged leaders of the rival Money Team Gang, were held on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping, burglary, robbery and street terrorism.
"We want people to engage in services," Whent said. "We want them to make better life choices. But my chief goal is I don't want them to engage in violence."
A department reorganization into five districts, each with a captain responsible for analyzing trends, meeting with community and deploying resources, also seems to be helping.
"We now have geographic accountability," Quan said.
But relations remain tense in neighborhoods that have historically experienced racial profiling and police abuse.
"I think it will take a long time, particularly before young people of color feel safe with the Police Department, so we're not under federal oversight by mistake," said Olis Simmons, executive director of East Oakland-based Youth UpRising. "However, under Whent's leadership, I do see a shift in department culture, and culture is all that matters."
The department has moved closer to compliance with the federal settlement agreement, although in his most recent report, compliance director Thomas Frazier said "much needs to be done" to refine the way allegations of use of force are handled.
Still, he signed off on his last month's report with optimism, noting that strained relations among the city, Police Department and his team had "improved on all fronts.… This evolution of the basic working environment is a huge step forward that should be publicly noted."