OAKLAND — The perception of many, especially those who live outside Oakland, is that violence and death lurk around every corner. Those who live here know this to be untrue, but understand that Oakland sees far too much violent crime for a city its size.
Many disputes that result in homicides are between people who know each other and have been arguing over petty issues, law enforcement officials say. For homicide investigators, the lack of regard for human life is appalling.
"It still amazes me how cheap a human life can be, and what somebody will throw their own life away for — like spend the rest of their life in prison over a $5 or $10 dispute," homicide commander Lt. Brian Medeiros said. "It seems like there is a lack of values all the way around."
But now, authorities are hopeful that a downward trend in city homicides will continue. Last year, the number of killings in Oakland dropped for a third straight year to 110. It was the lowest yearly total since an 11-year high of 148 in 2006.
With more patrol officers on the streets and increased efforts by specialized units, Oakland police hope the homicide rate will decline even further this year. As of Tuesday afternoon there had been 20 homicides in the city for 2010. At this time last year there had been 25. Overall, violent crime has dropped 27 percent this year, officials say.
Oakland police investigated 108 homicides in the city in 2009, down from 125 in 2008, 127 in 2007 and 148 in 2006.
Better police work
Officials attribute the decline to several factors, including better police deployment during peak crime hours, increased enforcement and intelligence gathering by specialized units and the deaths or arrests of people suspected of killings.
Of the 108 homicides, 100 were reported as murders — defined by the penal code as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice — to state and federal statisticians. The others were classified as either justifiable or self-defense — including four people fatally shot by police, two cases in which people used deadly force to defend themselves from suspects and two deaths of people in vehicles hit by drivers fleeing police that were not considered murders.
BART police investigated two killings in Oakland, both at the Fruitvale station. One was the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant III, 22, of Hayward, by one of their officers Jan. 1, 2009; the other was a stabbing death of a robbery suspect by his intended victim.
Homicide detectives have an emotional stake in all the killings they investigate. But 2009 was especially difficult for them after four Oakland police officers were fatally shot March 21 of that year by a parolee and rapist whom police later killed. It was the most officers fatally shot in one day in department history.
When people ask what motivates someone to kill, the usual answers are greed, anger, disrespect and revenge. That seemed to be the trend in Oakland.
As for motives, 14 of Oakland's 2009 killings were attributed to gang disputes, including some cases in which the victims were innocent people mistakenly believed to have been members of rival gangs, 14 were drug-related, 12 were linked to robberies and 10 resulted from domestic issues. These historically have been the primary motives for murder in Oakland.
Guns, guns, guns
Many of the statistics surrounding homicides have not changed. As in previous years, guns were the most common weapon used in killings. Handguns were used 78 times, assault rifles 12, rifles four and a shotgun once.
But knives and other weapons also were used: There were six fatal stabbings, two strangulations and six deaths by some form of blunt trauma.
Black men and women were victims 68 times, Latinos 16, whites 14, Asians four and people of other nationalities six. Identified suspects included 33 blacks, seven whites and six Latinos. Fifty-four of those killed were between ages 18 and 30. Twenty-nine suspects also fell into that age range.
Nine homicide victims were 17 or younger, a drop of three from 2008. But the number of identified suspects 17 and younger rose from three in 2008 to five in 2009, including a 13-year-old gang member.
Young suspects, especially gang members, are likely influenced by peer pressure, Medeiros said.
"They feel they have to (kill)," he said.
Of the 108 killings investigated in 2009 by Oakland homicide officers, 49 cases are considered solved, with the arrest of a suspect or the issuance of a warrant or the determination that the killing was justified. In 2009, investigators also solved 13 cases from previous years.
In more than 85 percent of the 59 unsolved cases, Medeiros said, investigators know who the suspect likely is, but don't have enough evidence to charge them.
As for crime scenes, 67 killings happened on a street or sidewalk, with another 30 either inside or directly outside a residence.
Weekends and prime time were made for mayhem: Saturday was the deadliest day of the week, with 24 homicides. The hours of 8 p.m. to midnight were the deadliest time of day, with 34 slayings occurring then.
More than half the killings in Oakland happened below MacArthur Boulevard, from 23rd Avenue to the San Leandro border, with 29 occurring in the southernmost part of East Oakland. Oakland's police beat No. 34, bounded by 82nd, 98th and Bancroft avenues and International Boulevard saw the most killings, with 12. Beat No. 27, bounded by High Street, Brookdale, 66th and Bancroft avenues, saw eight.
Police believe new strategies enacted by Chief Anthony Batts coupled with those already in place will continue to have an impact on the city's homicide and crime rates.
There are more patrol officers on the streets during peak crime hours and commanders have been more than willing to assign officers to work with homicide investigators on cases, in some instances even sending officers to other cities to track down suspects, Medeiros said.
A Gangs, Guns Investigative Task Force beefed up by Batts has produced results and is believed to have contributed greatly to the 27 percent drop in violent crime so far this year. It has made scores of arrests, seized dozens of guns and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs.
And the Targeted Enforcement Task Force teams, which do a lot of street work for homicide investigators, have been key in getting violent crime suspects off the streets.
There have been occasions, Medeiros said, in which the TETF officers have sometimes arrested a murder suspect identified by investigators "on the same day of the killing — with the murder weapon still in their possession."
* Includes two investigated by BART police