‘Pure fear’: Violent crime in Oakland rose 21% last year. Residents worry it will define the city

Oakland police Sgt. Sean Hall addressed the quiet, watchful crowd gathered at a church near Lake Merritt on a recent Wednesday evening. Eyes sweeping the audience, Hall flashed an unassuming smile.

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Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle

He was there to outline the department’s new patrol strategy to Grand Lake Neighbors, a group that meets monthly to discuss everything from street safety to parking enforcement. The sergeant’s mission: present a friendly face and try to instill optimism at a moment when crime is surging. 

Reports of violent incidents rose 21% last year compared to 2022, while robberies climbed 38% and burglaries ticked up 23%. For the second consecutive year, the city logged 120 homicides. Fear seemed to ripple through every neighborhood — including Grand Lake, with its leafy sidewalks and buzzy shopping corridors. 

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Already in 2024, crime has shaped Oakland politics, fueling  recall campaigns and calls for more police officers. City leaders are mired in a protracted and often divisive search for a new police chief, which has dragged on for nearly a year. Feelings of fatigue, desperation and outrage have reached a fever pitch. 

“It’s pure fear,” said Father Jayson Landeza, the pastor of St. Benedict Catholic Church in East Oakland, and a chaplain with the Police Department.

“You’re always walking around with your head alert,” Landeza continued. “Something as basic as emptying my garbage – the forty steps it takes to walk from my rectory to the bin. I’m fearful for my life. Drawing money from an ATM, you’re looking at the mirrors thinking, ‘Who is around me?  Who is behind me?’”

This month, Landeza presided over the funeral service for Officer Tuan Le,who was shot and killed on Dec. 29. while responding to a burglary at a cannabis dispensary. Le’s shocking death, at the end of a turbulent year, only intensified residents’ anxiety.

Lake Merritt, enshrined as a jewel of Oakland, was the site of an alarming crime scene last year, when cleaning crews found a suitcase floating in the water with a man’s body stuffed inside. Police classified the case as a homicide and are searching for a suspect.

“We’re all affected,” said Ken Katz, who attended the Grand Lake Neighbors meeting and listened intently to Hall’s presentation. A 50-year resident, Katz wrinkled his brow as he walked to the parking lot after the meeting. He said he’s worried about merchants suffering on Lakeshore Avenue, “in large part due to the auto burglaries” that have made people afraid to venture out.

Dean Yabuki, pointed to a bandage on his left hand — a slash wound, Yabuki said, from when he confronted a knife-wielding burglar in his home. Eileen Morentz, who also lives in the area, said that last month she shooed a car burglar from a Starbucks lot on Lake Park Avenue. When Morentz saw the man breaking windows and reaching into the trunk of a vehicle, she set off an alarm button on her key fob to scare him off.

Public safety has long been a raw topic in Oakland. Now it seems to overshadow other issues. Last year, gunfire rattled through the flatlands below Interstate 580 in East Oakland, where homicides increased. Police areas Five and Six, which encompass the flatlands, saw 55 slayings between them — up from 44 in 2022.

Downtown, many businesses no longer accept cash, fearing it makes them more vulnerable to robberies. Cyclists riding through the bucolic trails of the Oakland Hills have fallen victim to armed bike-jackings. 

“I wonder if there is an individual in the city of Oakland who hasn’t experienced crime in one way or another,” said Leonor Godinez, an organizer with the group Faith in Action East Bay. 

Godinez counts herself among last year’s victims. Thieves have smashed her car windows on three occasions. Driving down Grand Avenue last May, she crashed into a car that made an abrupt U-turn, apparently fleeing a crime. Moments after the collision, two men jumped out of the other vehicle and ran away, Godinez recalled.

Frustration over crime has caused political fallout in City Hall and the top law enforcement office in Alameda County, galvanizing recall efforts against Mayor Sheng Thao, and District Attorney Pamela Price. Their supporters push back, noting that Oakland’s violence dates back to previous administrations, and that no individual office-holder has the power to control fluctuations in crime.

“For the past three years Oakland has had over 100 murders each year, so for the recall proponents to blame the newly elected DA of Alameda County for the increase in violent crime is flat out wrong and ludicrous,” said William Fitzgerald, a spokesperson for the “Protect the Win” campaign to defend Price.

Carl Chan, a safety advocate in Oakland’s Chinatown and spokesperson for the recall effort against Price, said voters have “lost confidence in the legal system.” While the numbers show a spike in violence, they don’t tell the whole story, Chan said. He’s spoken with residents who claim to be so overwhelmed that they no longer report crime, having no faith it will be prosecuted. Price, a progressive, has sought to reduce incarceration — a stance that led some opponents to accuse her of enabling violent offenders.

Thao responded to her critics with a statement that emphasized her love for Oakland, and for her office.

“I have the best job in the world,” she said. “That’s because every day I have a chance to fight for a safer, more affordable, and more prosperous Oakland.” In other statements, she’s identified safety as a top priority.

This month, the Oakland Police Department rolled out a new strategy to quell the chaos. Top department officials dismantled a Violent Crime Operations Center that former chief LeRonne Armstrong formed in 2021, aiming to centralize resources so that police could focus on Oakland’s most serious crimes: shootings and killings.

With the central unit dissolved, Thao pledged to reinvigorating the city’s widely-praised Operation Ceasefire program — an intervention model that uses data to identify people likely to commit or be victims of crime, offering them mentoring and job opportunities but also warning them that they and their associates will become a focus of police if they continue to cause trouble.

At the same time, the Police Department has spread officers into neighborhoods, reviving the street teams that existed before Armstrong consolidated them into one unit. Many residents favor this beat-patrol methodology, saying they like having visible, dedicated law enforcement.

Hall touted the new structure when he spoke at the Grand Lake Neighbors meeting, where residents packed a room next to the main sanctuary of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church. With their chairs arranged in a semicircle, participants glued their eyes to the sergeant in his dark blue uniform, tattoos snaking up his forearms. He described the benefits of patrolling a specific neighborhood or shopping district, day-in and day-out.

“You know what’s going on in your area,” Hall told the crowd. “You know all the people. You know the business owners. You’re seeing the same folks every day. You build a little more trust with the community.”

One corridor that police have focused on, as the department reorganized its teams, is the stretch of Hegenberger Road between Oakland Coliseum and the airport. It’s a hot spot for stick-ups and smash-and-grabs that escalated over the last two years, becoming so rampant that several businesses decided to shut down. Among them was a bustling In-N-Out Burger at 8300 Oakport St., set to close March 24. Police logged 452 criminal incidents in the vicinity of the restaurant last year.

Capt. Casey Johnson, who supervises police operations in Area Six — a large swath of East Oakland — deployed a four-officer overtime detail on Hegenberger Road last year. Additionally, the department assigned a walking officer on Hegenberger Road, and another on nearby 90th Avenue, which also links to the airport. Over the past few months, Johnson began convening with Hegenberger merchants and Councilmember Treva Reid, whose district includes the roadway.

“We all tried to work together to figure out how we can attack this problem, thinking outside the box with the resources we have,” Johnson said in an interview.

But even with the new walking patrols, customers who parked at the In-N-Out last week said they hadn’t observed a noticeable law enforcement presence.

“How many police have you seen here?” asked Stephanie Davis, waving a hand out the driver side window as she paused from biting a hamburger. “None.”

When the Grand Lake Neighbors meeting ended, attendees walked home in groups of two or three, hunching in the crisp January air. Katz followed them, contemplating Oakland’s predicament. He understands why some people refuse to go out at night, even in bustling Lake Merritt.

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

Comments

  1. ‘Define the city’??? They’re about 30 years too late. As all the rest of KommieFornia’s woke and insane, major democrat cities. These commie morons are the most delusional (people??) I’ve ever seen in my life!!!

  2. The Woke Democrats have created the very problems they now claim they can solve – to save their butts and stay in office. Simple solution – never vote for a Democrat, and their Communist Woke agenda.

  3. Otis R. Needleman says

    Oakland has been a mess for decades. Until Thao and Price are recalled and replaced by competent people crime will never get under control in Oakland. I sure won’t be going there.

  4. Thinking outside the box? They’ve been thinking outside the box of common sense for years. What works is well known, the woke leftists simply refuse to see it and return to past policies that worked.

  5. Greg Farris says

    In 1969 I got orders to transfer from Saigon, Vietnam to Oakland Army Base. I stayed in Saigon, safer there.

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