05/14/2004

Oaklanders Plead for More Cops

'Crime-weary' residents urge council to consider community policing when crafting ballot initiative

By Heather MacDonald, Alameda Times-Star (Alameda, Calif.)

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Dozens of Oakland residents, weary of the city's high crime rate, demanded late Monday that the City Council hire more police officers and reinstitute community policing.

City officials have begun crafting an initiative that is expected to raise millions of dollars to beef up the Oakland Police Department while bolstering dozens of programs that seek to reduce and prevent violence in the first place.

A similar initiative, Measure R, on the March ballot failed by less than 1 percentage point.

"I cannot walk my dog in my neighborhood," said Svea O'Banion, a member of Safety First, a group formed recently to lobby city officials for more police officers. "I beg you -- help us make our neighborhood safe."

Some residents told those who attended Monday's special council meeting about watching friends die after being caught in the crossfire between gang members, while others spoke of helplessly watching their neighborhoods deteriorate.

"I don't want to have to move out of Oakland," said Salvador Diaz of East Oakland. "I don't mind paying twice as much taxes if that's what it takes to clean up the streets."

The Community Police Advisory Board, which opposed Measure R because it would have hired only 30 officers, urged the council to craft a new initiative that would fund the hiring of 120 new officers, and set aside half of the officers for community policing.

"I'm not against more programs, but I am in favor of more officers," said Oakland resident John Fall. "My neighbors and I have been left to fend for ourselves."

Measure R asked voters to approve annual parcel tax assessments of $90 for each single-family home and $180 for apartment buildings, which would raise $11 million a year for 10 years. Of the amount raised by the measure, 40 percent would have been funneled to social programs that aim to steer poor young people away from crime, drugs and gangs.

Another 40 percent would have been be used to hire several dozen more police officers. The remaining 20 percent would have funded job training and counseling programs for recent parolees and those with prison records.

While the number of other violent crimes has decreased during the last two years, Oakland's per capita murder rate is among the highest in the nation. Police Chief Richard L. Word told the council that after two years of more than 100 murders, he is optimistic the final 2004 tally would be about 80.

Word also said he wanted to expand the department's community policing efforts and place an officer in each of the city's 57 beats.

David Flack, a member of the Community Police Advisory Board, called on the council to make crime fighting its No. 1 priority, and to cut other departments if necessary. Along with other speakers, Flack criticized Measure R for being too vague and for hitting poor homeowners the hardest.

"The message of crime-weary Oakland citizens is not getting through," Flack said. "We want community officers back on the street."

However, some speakers urged the council to retain Measure R's balance between enforcement and prevention.

"That's the winning formula," said Don Link, a member of a North Oakland crime prevention council.

Oakland already spends more than $13.5 million on programs designed to reduce and prevent violence, said Andrea Youngdahl, director of the city Department of Human Services.

Several council members expressed frustration that there has been very little analysis of whether any of these programs are working.

"Until we get to a point of asking whether these programs are actually reducing violence, how can we decide where to put our money?" said Councilmember Jane Brunner [North Oakland].

Councilmember Desley Brooks [Eastmont-Seminary] said it appears city programs address just the surface of the problem, rather than the roots of violence.

The council is expected to meet again in the coming weeks to begin drafting the initiative, which is expected to be placed on the Nov. 2 ballot.

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