Oakland’s gun violence is out of control.
It won’t end until city leaders stop politicizing the issue and start uniting behind an effort to get guns off the streets and more cops on them, and to changing the culture that’s triggering the killings.
This isn’t a question of whether the city needs violence prevention programs or more police. They need both. People are being shot throughout Oakland, even outside City Hall. And now on a school campus. Residents live in fear as they’re forced to accept that in some parts of the city the sound of gunshots is a daily part of life.
City residents in 2021 lived through the most homicides in a year since 2006 and the lowest police staffing level since 2014. The rate of killings has continued at about the same rate this year and police staffing has barely changed. Cops, feeling unwelcome, are leaving as fast as the city can hire new ones.
Make no mistake, there are external forces city leaders cannot control contributing to the violence, starting with a national gun culture embraced by the National Rifle Association, Republican Party and U.S. Supreme Court that enables the proliferation of weapons.
But those are the cards Oakland has been dealt and it can either wallow in that and fight among themselves, or it can unite behind a strategy to end the violence. As long as the City Council majority keeps a stranglehold on the paltry size of the Police Department, those with weapons will continue to feel free to use them.
Oakland residents’ ambivalence toward their cops is understandable. The city has a long history of troubled officers who have abused their positions of power, which is why there has been two decades of federal court oversight of the department — and why the city has strengthened its police oversight system.
Meanwhile, it’s time to stop demonizing the vast majority of the officers who are trying to do their jobs professionally. It’s time to embrace them, show them that they’re valued and bolster their numbers so that they can safely protect the people.
And, yes, the answer is also to supplement that with violence prevention programs, mental health workers who can assist the police, and non-sworn employees who can answer the calls for blocked driveways, motorists’ fix-it tickets and other petty offenses.
But none of that can replace cops. Unless and until those alternative programs start showing meaningful reduction in the gun violence, the priority needs to be more police on the streets and tracking down those who think nothing of opening fire.
Unfortunately, finding enough cops is not easy. Fewer people want to be officers. And those that do are choosing cities where they are welcome.
It’s time for Oakland leaders to start welcoming them, to signal that they want to bolster their Police Department, not tear it down.