Oakland city officials have once again proved that their definition of "90 percent" is "an unknown percentage between 0 and 100, but probably not 90."
Police Chief Howard Jordan said Monday that 90 percent of the city's crime since summer had been committed by just two gangs. That would have meant those two gangs were responsible for 1,980 robberies and 51 homicides, which would have required them to be either extremely large or extremely efficient.
Those figures, of course, did not last long. By the end of Tuesday, Jordan claimed that he got confused -- which raises its own set of issues about a police chief who gets confused and makes up numbers at a news conference -- and what he meant was that 14 gangs were responsible for 65 percent of 58 percent of homicides.
OK, 37.7 percent is not 90 percent and, more important, 2.7 percent of the city's violence per gang is not 45 percent of the city's violence per gang.
By itself this would be bad but it's the second appearance of the imaginary 90 percent in the city's recent history. Mayor Jean Quan's 100 Blocks program was originally based on the premise that, according to the mayor, 90 percent of crime occurred in 100 blocks of Oakland. The real number turned out to be 17 percent.
How could this be? How could the leadership of the eighth-largest city in California be that fast and loose with facts when justifying policies to the people they serve? Do they simply consider truthful, correct information to be unimportant?
"The exact percentage isn't as important as the fact that these two groups are responsible for a huge percentage of the violence that's plaguing the city," Sean Maher, spokesman for the mayor, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The exact figure isn't as important as what we're going to do to stop them."
Oh. So yes, then. They simply consider truthful, correct information to be unimportant.
Maher is exactly wrong. In fact, in that quote, Maher succinctly illustrated precisely why Oakland's crime prevention plans so consistently fail.
The exact percentage is absolutely crucial, more so than anything else, because the exact percentage determines the best course of action for solving the problem.
Imagine your doctor told you, "The exact figures for your blood pressure and cholesterol aren't as important as what we're going to do to stop your heart attacks." That wouldn't exactly instill you with confidence, right? Because it doesn't take a medical license to know that diagnosing a condition requires correct information about the patient.
Crime prevention works the same way. If two gangs are responsible for 45 percent of the city's crime each, it makes a lot of sense to call in the FBI, the National Guard and anyone else short of the Avengers to stop those two gangs, since doing so would turn Oakland into a peaceful utopia. But if stopping 14 gangs prevents 2.7 percent of violence each, over half the city's violence will still be there when you're done. So it may not be wise to commit that much of the city's limited resources to just the one plan.
But what if that number-phobic doctor really, really wants to perform open-heart surgery? Maybe in the hopes of getting re-elected or not being taken over by the FBI? He or she could just tell you that your blood pressure is 10,000 over 700 and scare you into it without the information necessarily being, strictly speaking, true. Sure you may die on the table, but what's the alternative? Research? Math?
That's what Jordan, Quan, Maher and the rest of City Hall are doing. They're feeding Oakland numbers they made up on the spot to convince the people of the city to back their proposals without giving them the opportunity to make a fair assessment of the idea's merit.
They need to stop. They need to understand that the exact percentage is important, if only in the name of honesty. Because if they don't start being truthful and giving the people they serve factual information, Oakland could die on the table.
Daniel J. Willis is a database producer for the Bay Area News Group.