Commentary: Report Finds Crime Is Falling in Oakland – Maybe the Problem Wasn’t Criminal Justice Reform?

Pamela Price at a press conference in September 2021, photo by David Greenwald

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Oakland, CA – The debate is far from over but those who believed that the spike in crime was pandemic-related rather than policy-driven seem to have a bit of momentum at the moment, as the crime rate has significantly fallen across the nation.

One of the places where that change had been slow to come was Oakland where a crime wave hit the city in 2023 generating “unwanted negative attention” and triggering a potential recall of the district attorney who had just taken office that year.

This week the Chronicle reports, “Crime has dropped significantly across Oakland so far this year, raising cautious hopes that the crime wave that marked the city in 2023 — and drew unwanted negative attention — is receding.”

The report finds, “Crime is down 33% overall in Oakland so far this year compared with the same period in 2023, according to the latest police statistics through April 28, with significant drops in categories including homicides, assaults, rapes and burglaries.”

In a social media post, Mayor Sheng Thao said, “Oakland is turning the corner and the public safety investments we have made are paying off.”

Thao added, “Our hard fought progress is fueled by strengthening our police department, reviving the proven violence prevention initiative Ceasefire, collaborating with the state and federal government, and partnering with Oakland based businesses.”

Meanwhile, the Chronicle quoted David Muhammad, executive director of the Oakland-based National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, who said, “There’s some normal reduction because things had gotten pretty high and pretty bad — what some would call regression to the mean… But in reality things are trending in the right direction, and I’m incredibly encouraged by it.”

In Oakland, like much of the country, criminal justice reform has been blamed for spiking crime rates.  The data never really supported such a contention—as crime rates often went up faster in red states and in locations with traditional rather than reform DAs.

“Despite politicized claims that this rise was the result of criminal justice reform in liberal-leaning jurisdictions, murders rose roughly equally in cities run by Republicans and cities run by Democrats. So-called red states actually saw some of the highest murder rates of all,” a 2023 Brennan study noted.

A report from Third Way, a think tank that has been described as centrist but liberal, breaks down the homicide spike by state. Its analysis shows how states that went for Trump in 2020 accounted for eight of the ten highest murder rates. Furthermore, states that Trump won that year had a 40 percent higher murder rate versus states that voted for Biden.

Meanwhile in California, while reform DAs like Chesa Boudin and George Gascón were taking heat for a rise of crime, data called this into question.

Comparative data in both San Francisco and Los Angeles has consistently shown that, while crime rose, crime has risen everywhere and crime has risen faster in places with traditional DAs—like Sacramento, Alameda, Kern and other such counties.

But LA Times columnist Anita Chabria notes that, while homicides are up across the state and many have put the blame on things like Gavin Newsom, Prop. 47 and Prop. 57 as well as progressive DAs for lowering penalties on nonviolent crimes and facilitating early prison releases, a deeper dive into the data shows a far more complicated story.

Chabria argues, “The biggest risks for homicides came in conservative counties with iron-fist sheriffs and district attorneys, places where progressives in power are nearly as common as monkeys riding unicorns.”

Deep red Kern County leads the state in homicide rate at nearly 14 per 100,000.  That’s nearly 2.5 times the state average of 6 per 100,000 and well above the 8.5 per 100,000.  She notes, “The number of people annually murdered… in Kern has nearly doubled since 2015 to 124 lives last year.”

But Oakland confounded that trend a bit.  It is true that murders were rising in Oakland before newly-elected DA Pamela Price took over in 2023, it is also true that crime continued to rise in 2023 in Oakland during a time it was already starting to cool.

As the Chronicle noted, “homicide numbers, which rose in many cities from 2020 to 2022, failed to fall back in Oakland the way they had in other places.”

But what is interesting is that the city undertook an audit at the beginning of 2023, according to the Chronicle.

The audit found, among other things, “the city had walked away from its Ceasefire crime-reduction program from 2016 to 2020, even though it had been credited by the city with a significant decline in homicides in prior years.”

The Chronicle notes, “Ceasefire is a violence interruption strategy meant to identify the people most likely to be perpetrators or victims of violent crime and to team them with experienced police officers, mentors and other community members to preemptively stave off violence. The city said the program led to a 42% drop in homicides from 2012 to 2017.”

Instead, the city in 2021, under then-Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong started a separate program called the Violent Crime Operations Center, with a focus on improving clearance rates, or the percentage of recorded crimes that resulted in arrest.

The audit found that didn’t work—pulling officers away from the successful program and toward “a more reactive style of policing that was counterproductive.”

Interesting lessons can be learned from this audit and also a cautionary note should be sounded about assuming we can figure out the rise of crime in real time during times of great disruption.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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1 Comment

  1. Jeff Shaw

    Just a note to say that Oakland is in Alameda County:

    “Comparative data in both San Francisco and Los Angeles has consistently shown that, while crime rose, crime has risen everywhere and crime has risen faster in places with traditional DAs—like Sacramento, Alameda, Kern and other such counties.”

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