OAKLAND -- Identify the crime problem hot spots, who is involved and cool them down with saturation.
In Oakland, they're called "violence suppression projects," a crime prevention tool that police officials, backed up by statistics, say works.
It has been used in drug violence-ravaged areas like Ghost Town in West Oakland and Sobrante Park in East Oakland, in Fruitvale to combat robberies, and to deal with gang feuds in Elmhurst. With the exception of commercial areas such as Fruitvale, most of the sites are primarily residential, where people of color often fall victim to the violence that surrounds them.
Many commanders said such projects not only helped reduce overall major crime in Oakland last year, but also played a role in the decline of the number of homicides. Residents of targeted
communities say the efforts generally seemed to have a calming effect in their neighborhoods, and as one longtime Ghost Town resident noted: "Depending on what side of the line you are on, you're either happy or not."
Police Chief Anthony Batts, a champion of the projects that he increased significantly since he took over the department in October 2009, says: "They work. I believe in their ability to reduce violent crime in the city. They are a laser focus on the people and areas that have been identified as the most violent in the city."
The use of such suppression efforts was lauded by James "Chips" Stewart, a retired Oakland police captain, former head of the National Institute of Justice and now a senior fellow for public safety with the Alexandria, Va.-based think tank CNA.
Stewart last year authored a highly critical report based on an inquiry into a police action March 21, 2009, in which two Oakland SWAT sergeants were slain during a gunbattle with a parolee who had earlier killed two motorcycle officers. The suspect was killed by other officers in the shootout.
Stewart said violence suppression projects are "an extremely effective tool that combine analysis with directed street patrol and intervention. They have an inherent deterrent effect. You are not putting cops on dots, waiting for something to happen. They are looking at specific times and places and putting their emphasis there."
More than 60 percent of large city police departments use saturated patrols to deal with identified hot spots, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum.
Civilian analysts using computer data, area commanders, beat officers and members of specialized units help identify where problems are, who might be responsible and whether gangs are involved. Batts said that input allows the department to "engage in predictive and hot-spot policing."
Lt. Brian Medeiros, commander of the homicide unit, said he analyzed several years of killings and other shootings to help identify project areas.
One stretch of such projects in Oakland stands out because of its effectiveness.
From January 2010 to April 2010, more than a dozen projects were conducted, resulting in 422 arrests -- including some on charges of murder, robbery and gun assaults -- and the seizure of 34 guns, including three assault weapons. Overall major crime in that period dropped 16 percent; the city ended the year with a 14 percent drop.
Another figure stood out, Medeiros said. Historically, a lot of homicides have happened on Saturdays. But during that four-month period, killings occurred on only three Saturdays. The city finished the year with 95 homicides, down from 110 in 2009.
One of the targeted areas, Ghost Town, generally bounded by 27th and 30th streets from Martin Luther Jr. Way to Market Street, is made up of older homes and a few small stores. A drug gang calls the area its turf and has engaged in deadly rivalries over the years with other gangs. Innocent people have run for cover as shootings have left bodies on the streets and cars and homes riddled with bullets.
A 53-year-old man who has lived in Ghost Town since 1990 and only gave a first name of Paul said the projects have generally had a positive effect. "They seem to make a little bit of difference. It reduces the violence, at least for awhile," he said. He said he wishes police could do more of them in the area.
A man who has lived in Sobrante Park for more than two decades, who did not want his name or age used, said he has seen a marked difference when police saturate the area.
Sobrante Park is primarily residential with streets lined by well-kept houses in an area bounded by 98th and Edes avenues, Interstate 880 and the San Leandro border. Dozens of drug-related killings and other shootings have occurred there, mostly near parks and the few businesses.
The resident said shootings seem to decrease after police focus on the area. He said the police presence has resulted in "fewer people congregating" in parts of the neighborhood where violence had become commonplace. "It feels safer," he said.
While Oakland police have used similar approaches over the years, the advance planning and frequency have increased during Batts' tenure. Since last year, the department has conducted dozens of projects citywide, usually at least one a week.
With overtime and grant funds paying for their shifts, officers on a project usually work from 2 p.m. until at least midnight. They look for wanted suspects, make traffic stops and talk to people in the neighborhood. Usually at least 10 officers and two sergeants are involved, led by a lieutenant or someone of higher rank, and they are occasionally joined by FBI and DEA agents, U.S. marshals, parole agents and probation officers.
Although police don't give advance notice of projects, Medeiros said, "people know when we are out there. The officers stay active and have a high, visible presence."
Officers on a project are also able to gather intelligence about criminal activity in the targeted area, said Capt. Steve Tull, who as commander of the Criminal Investigation Division has overseen several projects. "It's a big bonus. It lets us know things we didn't know before; we get insights into what is going on in the street."
While shootings are up 60 percent this year, Oakland's overall crime rate is down 4 percent, and Batts has no plans to stop the projects.
"They will be sustainable," the chief said. "We will continue to use them and all the resources available to us."