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Killings Surge in Oakland, and Officials Are Unable to Explain Why

In a cresting wave of violence, Oakland, Calif., recorded 148 homicides in 2006, a 57 percent rise over 2005 and the highest number in 11 years.

June 22, 2007

OAKLAND, Calif., June 15 — The names of friends and family members killed in this city over the last two years come easily to Rob Wilson, a rangy, dreadlocked 17-year-old gang member.

A brother was shot to death in a drug deal in 2005. Oakland police officers killed a cousin in a shootout last year. Gang members shot down a friend in March.

“It used to be I would just hear about somebody getting shot, but I wouldn’t know them,” said Mr. Wilson, who is known as Deka and who pulled up a pants leg to show a bullet wound from a shooting last year. “Now, it’s getting closer and closer to me, these deaths.”

The shootings are part of a cresting wave of violence in Oakland, which recorded 148 homicides in 2006, a 57 percent increase over 2005 and the highest number in 11 years. As of last week, 43 people had been killed in 2007, fewer than the 60 killed over the same period last year, but still far short of a turnaround.

Law enforcement officials and community organizers in Oakland are hard pressed to explain the rise, particularly since homicides in the two other big cities in the Bay Area, San Jose and San Francisco, have not increased substantially.

Possible explanations include large numbers of violent parolees returning from prison, increasing gang violence, the availability of guns, a growing methamphetamine trade and police recruitment shortfalls. But some of those factors also exist in San Francisco and San Jose, which has a comparable number of parolees and, arguably, a larger and longer-standing gang problem than Oakland.

“We’re trying to make sense of it,” said Officer Roland Holmgren, a spokesman for the Oakland Police Department. “But it’s irrational.”

The variable and somewhat mysterious homicide rates in the Bay Area mirror a national pattern in crime data for 2006 released earlier this month by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The data show killings increased significantly in some cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, and decreased in others, including Dallas, Los Angeles and Miami, with no definitive explanation for the differences.

Many criminologists and law enforcement officials are debating whether the violent-crime data signal a significant national trend. In a report, “A Gathering Storm — Violent Crime in America,” the Police Executive Research Forum, a professional organization of police chiefs, warned last year that violent crime increases were “the front end of a tipping point of an epidemic of violence not seen for years.”

Among other factors, the chiefs blamed a decline in federal spending for a decrease in crime prevention and community policing programs and for a dip in police staffing.

Many criminologists, however, question whether the recent increases in killings are large enough, widespread enough or consistent enough to be considered a trend. And even those who do discern a pattern say that they are often unable to explain why it is happening or what policing strategies would be best to use.

“There are a thousand different stories competing against each other,” said Frank Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “When you put all the dots together, instead of knowing more, we know less.”

Murders rose 6.7 percent in 2006 in cities with more than a million people, but in the nation’s three largest cities, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, violent crime either declined or held steady. In cities with populations from 250,000 to 500,000 violent crime increased 3.2 percent and murders rose 3.7 percent.

“Two years does not a trend make, but two years can be the beginning of one; we just don’t know yet,” said Joel Wallman, a criminologist at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation in New York City. “Some of these are such small changes, and the timeframe of the trend is so short that it’s very difficult to determine whether this is a real trend or just random noise.”

Junious Williams, the chief executive of the Urban Strategies Council, a group in Oakland that studies urban poverty and crime, said the increase in homicides was prevalent in many predominantly African-American cities. Over the last five years, African-American suspects accounted for 65 percent of Oakland’s killings, according to a study by the council, and 77 percent of victims.

“Most of the cities experiencing increases in homicides have black pluralities, if not majority black populations,” Mr. Williams said. “Here in Oakland, the majority of the crimes are being committed by young brothers.”

Poor educational opportunities, high unemployment and a criminal justice system that reinforces criminal behavior have led to an “honorific culture” akin to that of the Wild West for many inner city black communities, said a Harvard sociologist, Orlando Patterson.

Respect for traditional social norms was on the decline, Mr. Patterson said, in the face of a growing hip-hop culture that puts an emphasis on street credibility for respect.

Some criminologists argued that the recent increases signified that the historic declines in crime in the late 1980s and 1990s had bottomed out after abnormally high levels in the wake of the crack cocaine epidemic. Tougher sentencing guidelines, widespread incarceration and the subsiding crack trade have run their course, these criminologists say, and without those overriding factors, crime rates are returning to more natural, regional levels.

“Even the kind of crime we’re seeing now is nowhere near what we were seeing in the early 1990s,” said Jack Riley, a researcher at the RAND Corporation, a research organization in Santa Monica, Calif.

Whatever the debate nationally about a crime trend, many people who live and work in Oakland are seeing more death at their doorsteps.

Jordan Murphy, 18, barely made his high school graduation last week, having been mistaken for a rival gang member and shot in the thigh in August.

Tony Alcala, 17, survived three bullets, one in the stomach and two in the back, when he was shot last year. The police told him later that two of the men who attacked him had been arrested, and a third gunman had been killed by gang members sympathetic to Mr. Alcala.

Dr. Javid Sadjadi, an emergency room doctor at Highland Hospital, Oakland’s main public trauma center, said doctors there treated 425 shooting victims last year, some of them several times.

“We’re starting to see the same people getting shot several times in several different incidents,” Dr. Sadjadi said, recounting a 14-year-old shooting victim who died recently after being admitted to the hospital, his third admission for having been shot.

Dr. Sadjadi recalled one day last summer when the hospital treated more than 10 victims of shootings.

“We’re also seeing much younger patients,” he said. “Last year was a record for shooting victims who were youths between the ages of 14 and 17.”

An Oakland woman, identified only as Katt, has her arm tattooed with the names of relatives who have died, including a nephew shot in 2006.

Jordan Murphy, 18, barely made his high school graduation this month, having been mistaken for a rival gang member in August and shot.

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As of last week, 43 people had been killed in 2007, fewer than the 60 killed over the same period last year, but still far short of a turnaround.
Killings are down so far this year but the article reports there's a surge as if there's some sort of pandemic when it isnt even a topic of conversation among most Oaklanders cause this violence doesnt touch the vast majority of them-welcome to the bay area media establishment's business-as-usual scaremongering when it comes to Oakland-a place that's becaome synonymous with the F-word to many suburbanites.
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