Scenes from the aftermath in Oakland:
stories of victims, survivors and healers.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A history of the homicide rate in Oakland in 4 paragraphs

As I said in the preceding post (A history of Oakland crime-fighting strategies in 4 paragraphs), despite its unrelenting troubles with crime and violence, Oakland remains a great and beautiful place to live and work. Unfortunately, Oakland also remains, especially for young African American men, a frequent place to die. Actually, the past couple of weeks have been relatively quiet in terms of death. Although, of course, tell that to the family of Aya Nakano, shot multiple times and killed here last week, on the eve of his 23rd birthday. Their tumult and terror is only just beginning. (See: Adrift in a churning tide: life after homicide.)
It is true that we have had signficantly fewer killings this year than last. 51 by mid-June of 2012 compared to 43 so far in 2013. (Last year's numbers at this time included the 7 people slaughtered by one man at Oikos University in April, in America's forgotten mass shooting.) 
Death's almost-holiday here is welcome, but I hate myself whenever I employ the "this-time-last-year" thing, as journalists and city officials like to do. (See: Trauma Cache, Part 1: The Calendar and the Killing.) And so I wish to take this opportunity to emphasize that it will take many years, maybe decades, to really know if somehow, some way, we really have lowered the rate of violence in Oakland, in Chicago, in Philadelphia... 
It's understandable that politicians and the media tend too quickly to claim progress (or sometimes regress) based on fluctuations in homicide numbers. Politicians want success, they want to have figured out a way to make their cities safer. They also want credit for it. So, as Mayor Quan has done with me in interviews, they will site any comparative dip in homicide numbers as evidence the tide has turned and they are the moon. The media is just looking for stories. Here's my history of the homicide rate in Oakland from the 1960s, in 4 paragraphs (for the record, 2012 was worse than 2011, worse even than bloody 2007):

In Oakland, homicide numbers might fall or rise incrementally from year to year, but the annual death count has remained staggeringly high for nearly four decades. The lowest recent count came in 2010, when the city had 90 killings.Even in raw numbers, many larger cities have far fewer annual killings than Oakland. In 2011, Oakland had five times as many homicides as did much-larger Seattle. It had four times as many killings as San Diego, with over a million residents.
Such homicide numbers are a tradition in Oakland. City leaders like to tout as progress even the indication of a dip, but an examination of murders in Oakland over the past forty-plus years demonstrates that the numbers never stay down for long. In 1960, Oakland’s population was just over 300,000. There were twenty homicides that year. By 1969, the number had risen to eighty-nine. No one could, or would, say precisely why. When the city first broke the 100 homicide mark, in 1973, Oakland Police Captain John Lothrop was baffled by the violence. “We are living in violent times,” he said.
From 1986 through 1995, the city would suffer an average of 124 homicides a year. Years with fewer than 100 killings were anomalies, but they would be marked as progress. When there was a dip in killings in the late Nineties, it was credited to a decrease in drug dealing and a strong economy. In 2001, the San Francisco Chronicle trumpeted a turnaround for the city.
Then, in 2002 the number rose to 113. By 2003, reporters were using the term “killing fields” to describe certain neighborhoods in the city. There were 148 homicides in 2006. By 2007, a writer in the Oakland Tribune was worried about what he perceived as a “sinister acceptance of violence” in the city. There were 126 homicides that year. 

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