OAKLAND -- To understand the dynamics of violent crime, you must first comprehend the violent social networks criminals belong to, a college professor told an audience here last week.
The analysis by Andrew Papachristos of Yale University was presented May 8 as the third in a series of Safe Oakland talks organized by Councilwoman Libby Schaff.
As usual, the news about Oakland's crime problem was not good. An investigation by the Bay Area News Group revealed that statistically Oakland had the highest percentage rate of robberies in the nation and city officials were stunned by the sudden medical retirement of police Chief Howard Jordan.
Since then, a successor to Jordan was demoted and the department's leadership changed amid negative reports about how OPD is managed.
Papachristos used statistical analysis to show that fatal shootings, a major part of Oakland's crime problem, are for the most part not random but an outgrowth of social relationships among men who practice risky criminal behavior.
Given these relationships, a victim is more likely to be killed the closer he is in relation to other shooting victims.
"The closer you are to gunshot victims, the greater the chances are of you getting shot," he said.
Understanding these relationships is vital when trying to stop the violence by dealing with the individuals who have the most influence on the gang, according to Papachristos.
That concept is being used as part of Oakland's Ceasefire program in which offenders are offered access to social services as an alternative to crime. Those who do not choose to take advantage of the offer are reminded of the consequences of criminal behavior.
In studying crime in Chicago, Papachristos discovered that neighborhoods with rampant violence have been violent for more than 120 years.
In Boston, gun violence on 3 percent of the city's streets accounted for half of the incidents throughout the city.
The spread of gun violence is analogous to the propagation of AIDS among people who engage in risk factors such as unprotected sex and sharing hypodermic needles.
"This idea that crime is a disease, you hear it a lot," he said. "Gun violence is a disease but it's not just any disease. It's not like the flu. You don't catch a bullet like you catch a cold."
The tragic shooting death of a 3-year-old child recently proves the point, Papachristos said. The child's father had 20 known associates and two-thirds of them had been shot at some time in the three years prior to the fatal incident.
Implementing the Ceasefire program effectively requires that leaders change how they think about communities and admit that we have collectively failed in attempts to change the social factors that have left some people to be "lopped off" psychologically, said Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who represents West Oakland and other areas.
When asked if a simpler solution would be to simply arrest members of violent criminal networks and not offer them social services, another member of the speech panel offered a societal perspective.
"The people who are perpetrating violence in our communities don't get there in a random way," said the Rev. George C.L Cummings, founding pastor of Imani Community Church who works with Ceasefire, "They are the product of communities that have been affected in many ways."
"A lot of us think people in those communities are violent criminals," he added.
"But the fact of the matter is that the majority in those communities are decent people who want to live and be productive."
Gibson McElhaney said authorities need to look to other solutions than the get-tough-on crime attitude that led to mass incarcerations during the height of the crack epidemic.
That approach was not effective, she said.
"We have been ready to throw money at solutions that don't work because it sounds good," she said, adding later, "We cannot incarcerate our way out of the problem."