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What's Driving Oakland's Crime Wave?

Fed-up residents say they will recall District Attorney

Last May, Oakland police arrested nine teenagers for a string of almost three dozen robberies throughout the East Bay. In one of the robberies, the juveniles brutally attacked a 63-year-old woman in a busy upscale Oakland shopping district, beating her in the head and dragging her by her hair across the sidewalk. Then, they attacked a bystander who tried to intervene.

Within days, the perpetrators were set free with no charges.

When you share stories like this one on social media, by far the most common refrain you hear is, “They voted for this.” And that’s true: Last year, Pamela Price, the far-left District Attorney for Alameda County, won her election by a decisive 53%. Sheng Thao, the current Mayor of Oakland, who once called to defund the police, won by a sliver.

But even the most ardent criminal justice reform voters never imagined they were voting for what Oakland has become. Crime has become a fixture of daily life in the East Bay, and nowhere more than in Oakland. In the most recent crime report available, crime was up 28% in the city over the same week last year, which was itself a huge crime year. Violent crime has increased by 19%, robbery is up 30%, burglary by 44%, and auto theft by 52%. Oakland has had 10,000 car burglaries so far this year, which is about one for every 43 residents.

Now, the explosion of crime, which has impacted just about every Oakland resident’s day-to-day life, is transforming the politics of this famously ultra-progressive city.

“She is on the criminals’ side,” an Oakland resident said of the District Attorney at a town hall meeting on public safety. “To any of you who voted for her: Shame on you, and elections have consequences. She told us what she was going to do, and somehow, the majority of people in this town voted for her anyway.” 

The room exploded in applause.

Price ran on a decarceration platform. She defends her policies as the right thing to do and says she is being unfairly blamed for rising crime. At a recent community meeting, Price said she had let the kids who committed the robbery spree go free because the youths were masked, and her office could not discern which of the thieves was responsible for which of the attacks. 

She went on: “All counties across the state have been asked to decriminalize young people. And so our county has adopted that as a policy.”

The line was not a crowd-pleaser. A friend of the 63-year-old victim, who had witnessed the crime, described putting her friend in an ambulance and sending her to the emergency department. “I just want to say that there must be consequences,” she told Price. The audience clapped and cheered.

In hyper-liberal Alameda County, almost no one would disagree with Price’s mission to “decriminalize young people.” But to crime victims, decriminalization has come to mean impunity. And the DA’s deep concern for the fates of criminals seems to be surpassed only by her indifference to the needs of their victims. 

What went wrong in Oakland? If voters are “getting what they voted for,” why are they so upset about it?

“The Criminals are the Saviors, and the Victims, We’re the Criminals.”

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 27, 2022: Family members console each other as Oakland police investigate a double shooting on Edes Avenue at 98th Avenue in East Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. One man died at the scene and another man was wounded. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

On June 17, 2022, at around 10 PM, Isaiah Castillo, a 22-year-old on his way to his grandmother’s house, came to a red light in Fremont, California, a quiet East Bay city south of Oakland. For the last few blocks, he had been speeding through the streets, chased by four juveniles in a black Mercedes Benz. As he waited to drive through the intersection, the Mercedes pulled up alongside him. One of the passengers pulled out a gun and unloaded it on him. Isaiah’s 12-year-old sister happened to be at the McDonald’s on the corner, getting a milkshake. Recognizing the car, she ran up to it and saw her brother slumped over in the front seat. He had died instantly.

The boys who murdered Isaiah had been on a crime spree that night. They had carjacked the Mercedes and had stolen a Saab before that. After Isaiah’s murder, at least one of the boys in the car went on to commit more murders: first of Rienheart Asuncion, a 30-year-old man in a road rage incident, and then, less than two weeks later, of Jazy and Angel Sotelo Garcia, two brothers who attended Berkeley High School who were shot at a house party.

That boy, Sergio Morales-Jacquez, is in juvenile detention for Asuncion’s murder and will serve at most seven years. Morales-Jacquez, who is from Oakland, was 17 at the time of the murder and is now 18. Price refused to try him as an adult, and the juvenile justice system can only hold him until age 25. He could even be released sooner than that, on good behavior. He has not been charged for any of the other cases, including Isaiah’s.

The boy who pulled the trigger in Isaiah’s murder was never charged and remains free.

Isaiah’s mother, Rachel Barrera, told Public that she exchanged text messages with Price after she took office in January of this year. Then Price stopped replying to her. Barerra says she called the DA’s office and left messages twice a day from January until March. Price has never called her back. The most information she has received from the DA’s office was when one of Price’s staffers once told Barrera of her son’s killer, “If it makes you feel better, he moved to another county.”

Barrera and her family live in anxiety and unresolved grief. “When I pass by kids, I think is that him? Is that him?” she said. “I think everyone should have a gun now. I used to hate guns. I don’t feel safe anywhere.” After seeing her brother murdered, her daughter now has to go to school across the street from where he was killed. 

The brazenness of Isaiah’s murder is a feature of crime in the East Bay, especially in Oakland. Car burglaries are carried out casually in broad daylight, on congested streets with crowds of bystanders watching. Often burglars break into cars while people are still inside them — in one case, an 8-year-old girl. Near the Oakland airport, one worker told the San Francisco Standard that she witnesses about 10 car break-ins a day; a FedEx worker said he once saw close to 10 of them in a single hour.

Burglars have rammed stores with stolen cars in order to break through their roll-up gates. In one case burglars used a forklift.

Gunfights have broken out downtown, either between rival crime gangs or between criminals and their victims.

“Sideshows,” in which drivers, often in stolen cars, take over intersections and do donuts in the middle of the street, are ubiquitous. Last May, a neighbor who tried to interfere with a sideshow was beaten nearly to death by a mob.

Criminals may be attracted to Alameda County because they’re aware that the DA will treat them leniently if she prosecutes them at all. But more likely, they don’t expect to get caught in the first place, because there aren’t enough police officers to enforce the law.

“A city of our size, of a half million people, and with our level of crime, according to many different metrics say that we’re supposed to have between 1,000 and 1,200 officers,” Seneca Scott, a community activist in West Oakland, told Public. “OPD has under 700.”

Police are so understaffed that when there are too many 911 calls, the police go into “no report status,” which means officers will only respond to violent crimes in progress. One resident told Public that after being robbed at gunpoint by three men in ski masks, he had to wait four days just for a police officer to take a report. That was only after calling the station multiple times and even visiting in person.

And that’s when residents can get through to 911 at all. Oakland has the second-slowest 911 response time in the state, with an average wait of 54 seconds. The city was recently threatened with loss of state funding over its failing 911 system.

As much as Pamela Price has coddled criminals and ignored their victims, these problems are not the fault or the responsibility of the District Attorney and they pre-date her tenure. The blame for OPD’s staffing crisis falls on the current Mayor of Oakland, Sheng Thao, and on the Governor and state legislature.

In the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, Mayor Thao was a City Councilmember. Back then, she was an advocate of defunding the police. In 2021, she voted to redirect $18 million from then-Mayor Libby Schaaf’s proposed increase to the police budget amidst a growing crime wave, freezing 50 vacant officer positions and cutting two police academy cohorts. The City Council then restored much of that cut as crime rose, and Thao went on to run for mayor as a public safety candidate.

More important to OPD’s recruitment prospects than this back-and-forth on the budget, however, was AB 392, a 2019 law inspired by the high-profile deadly shooting of a black man in Sacramento. AB 392 made it easier to prosecute police officers who use deadly force. Combined with the political environment that arose from the Black Lives Matter movement, the law has forced officers in California to reconsider what risks they are willing to take on the job. 

If a tragic mistake can lead to prison time, then officers have every incentive to avoid putting themselves in a scenario in which such a mistake could happen. This is especially true in Oakland, where the DA ran on a platform of prosecuting police officers. Minimizing this risk means avoiding interactions with suspects as much as possible, by refraining from traffic stops and other forms of proactive policing, and only responding to the most urgent 911 calls. It has also meant transferring from high-crime cities to low-crime cities, or not taking jobs in cities like Oakland at all.

The result has been short-staffed police forces in the cities that need police the most, and officers who are less inclined to take aggressive actions to prevent crimes, for fear of shooting someone and going to prison for it.

On top of the risk of criminal prosecution, the Oakland Police Department has been under a federal consent decree for 18 years. Over that time, relentless scrutiny from the federal monitor has created an internal culture of risk aversion in which doing police work is perceived as problematic. If you do too many stops, superiors start asking questions. “Officers will not stop people because they will be identified as outliers,” one retired Oakland police officer told Public.

The upshot of all of these factors is that for Oakland police officers, it makes more sense to do nothing than to do their jobs. And it makes more sense for new recruits to go to a low-crime suburb than to join the Oakland Police Department in the first place.

The costs of Oakland’s crippled law enforcement capacity have been borne by the most vulnerable residents of the city.

“We have the majority of the calls for support to 911 coming from the black community — black women in particular,” said Loren Taylor, former City Councilmember in East Oakland. “The majority of those who I represent from the flatlands of East Oakland, they recognize that taking away police and not having anything, puts more people in jeopardy and more lives at risk.”

“While they’re playing this political game with our public safety, we’re in communities where people are losing their lives,” Keisha Henderson, a community leader in Oakland, told Public. She believes defund the police activists fueled the crime wave, and then went back to the suburbs they came from. “We’re suffering in these communities, and we don’t even see these people. Where are the defund movement people? I have never seen anyone that is part of the defund movement in hardcore, high-crime communities in Oakland. I have never seen it.”

On top of all of these cultural and ideological variables, there’s sheer incompetence. Recently, the Governor announced the recipients of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of funds the state allocated to cities and other local jurisdictions to fight organized retail theft. Even though Oakland is losing businesses to rampant shoplifting, it wasn’t on the list. It turned out city leaders had missed the application deadline. 

The factors driving lawlessness in Oakland, then, are these: Years of demonization of the police by the Black Lives Matter protest movement have left law enforcement neutered and ineffectual. The city’s political leadership is weak and inept. And radical victimhood ideology has pushed the politics of the city into a doom spiral.

“Now it’s like the criminals are the saviors, and the victims, we’re the criminals,” said Henderson. “It’s like it’s switched.”

Rage Against The Political Machine

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA- JULY 05, 2023: Alameda County Coroners Office sheriffs deputies prepare to remove the body of a man who was shot and crashed his car into a building at the corner of MacArthur Boulevard and 74th Avenue in East Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, July 5, 2023. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

After nearly four decades in business, Le Cheval, a beloved French-Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Oakland, is closing its doors this week. Burglars broke into the restaurant multiple times, and customers have stayed away because of the rampant car break-ins and gunpoint robberies downtown. It is no longer financially possible for the restaurant to stay open in the city of Oakland. “The crime, the criminals killed us,” the owner told a local news station.

“The politicians in Oakland here, they can do nothing, just talk only,” he said.

The reality of crime has caught up to Oakland, fast. Eighty-three percent of Oakland voters believe that crime and public safety is the top issue in the city, and 74% support hiring hundreds more police officers. The ideology that regards criminals as victims, which animated the campaigns of both former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and the current Alameda County DA, already feels like an anachronism of another time. Crime is galvanizing the politics of the city, stoking rage among voters against their elected leaders.

Alameda County residents may have voted for Pamela Price, but now there’s enough buyer’s remorse that a recall campaign is underway. Price blames the recall on Republicans and likens its supporters to January 6th rioters, but a growing number of ordinary Alameda County residents, including Isaiah Castillo’s mother, want to see her fired. By sending a signal to criminals that it’s open season in Alameda County, they believe, Pamela Price’s lenience has contributed to the colossal crime wave.

But removing the DA will not be enough to end the crisis. The causes are too entrenched and complex for such a simple fix. They can only be uprooted by a political sea change.

On Tuesday, small businesses in Oakland went on strike to demand a real response from the city. Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, estimates that well over 200 businesses participated, including restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores and liquor stores, many if not most of them owned by immigrants. Organizers held their press conference at Le Cheval.

“We’re not ok with this,” Jamaica-born Nigel Jones, who owns two restaurants in Oakland, told an audience of a couple hundred. At one of his restaurants, he said, after being denied use of the bathroom, a homeless woman walked into his kitchen and relieved herself on the floor. “Are we going to normalize this?” he asked.

“Yes, we need to change and address institutional racism,” said Jennifer Tran, an Ethnic Studies Professor at Cal State East Bay and a member of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce. “But letting crime go rampant is not the way.”

The strike follows successful efforts by small businesses in San Francisco to demand action on crime and homelessness in that city. Last year, Castro merchants threatened a tax strike, and businesses in the Tenderloin did the same. Partly in response to the pressure, Mayor London Breed took more aggressive action to close the city’s open-air drug market.

The Pamela Price recall campaign is currently in its signature-gathering phase. Should it make it to the ballot, Price will have a fight on her hands. Currently, 51% of Oakland voters support replacing her, versus 27% who would like to keep her in her seat, according to a recent poll.

Oakland feels as if it’s on the precipice of change — either for the better or for the dangerously worse. The community leaders behind the business strike seem optimistic. But that may be because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

If Price is not recalled, Henderson said, “It’s gonna cause a war in these streets. People are going to take matters into their own hands. There’s going to be more gun carriers, and they’re just going to be taking out people themselves.”

Leighton Woodhouse