OAKLAND -- After two years of rising death tolls, homicides in Oakland fell from 131 in 2012 to 92 in 2013, a decline that while gratifying to many, was still marred by the innocence of some of those slain.

Like 16-month old Drew Jackson, killed Aug. 7 by gunfire along with his father, Andrew Thomas, 20, as they slept inside a relative's home in East Oakland

Like 8-year-old Alaysha Carradine, who died July 17 in a hail of bullets fired by a gang member bent on killing anyone inside the Dimond district apartment where the girl was spending the night. Two other children and an adult also were wounded.

Like Quinn Boyer, a 34-year-old paramedic fatally shot by teen carjackers April 2 as he drove along Keller Avenue after leaving his father's house.

Like Aya Nakano, an hour away from his 23rd birthday, killed as he drove home from a pickup basketball game June 12. He was fatally shot after someone rear-ended his car in the 5800 block of Market Street, possibly to set him up for a robbery.

Although relatives and friends of Oakland's 92 victims will remember 2013 with sadness, it was the fewest homicides in Oakland since 2004, when there were 89. Eighty-eight of the 2013 homicides are considered murders; three others are classified as justifiable homicides, including two fatal police shootings. The circumstances behind a homicide that occurred late Tuesday have yet to be determined.

Interim Chief of Police Sean Whent says the decline in homicides is "significant and important to public safety."


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"Reducing violent crime is our priority in continuing to build community trust," he said, noting that clergy and other community members have reported an "increased feeling of safety" in Oakland.

The drop is welcome news in a city with a reputation for a high crime rate and violence, where some killings grab national headlines. The 30 percent reduction in homicides and a 15 percent drop in nonfatal shootings -- 472 as of Dec. 31 -- helped violent crime in Oakland dip 1 percent overall.

Some other large Bay Area cities also saw fewer homicides. San Jose reported 44, a drop of two from 2012, and Richmond reported a drop from 18 to 16. San Francisco's tally fell from 69 to 48, and Hayward went from seven to six.

Marilyn Washington Harris, who as founder of the victims' advocacy group the Khadafy Foundation has helped thousands of people who have lost a loved one to Oakland violence, said she is "encouraged" that fewer people died and thinks the trend can continue.

"I know we'll never be down to none, but I'm encouraged we're not in the hundreds," she said. "Maybe people are thinking more now about the consequences before they pick up a gun and end a life and a generation of a family that can never be replaced."

Still, police and others know there is much to do to keep people from dying at the hands of another.

"Every single life is precious, and losing even one to violence is unacceptable," Mayor Jean Quan said. "But these signs of progress let us know we are on the right track together."

Whent attributes much of the decrease to Operation Ceasefire, his primary crime-fighting strategy where services are offered to known gang members and violent offenders to help them change their lifestyles. If they don't, they face arrest and prosecution.

A decline in the number of officers on the force -- Oakland has 627 officers, and experts say at least 900 are needed for a city its size -- has officers using intelligence they gather to put "laser focus" on people involved in violent crime and gangs.

Long-term investigations in 2012 also paid off, officials said, resulting in the dismantling of some major violent gangs involved in multiple killings, with dozens of suspects jailed and some being indicted by federal prosecutors. Whent said intelligence gathered after two of the major gangs were dismantled showed that "remnants of the gangs were far less violent than they were and allowed us to focus on other violent offenders."

Another key was having five of the department's six Crime Reduction Teams, made up of a sergeant and six officers, working in East Oakland, where the majority of homicides and violence happen.

That allows for seven-day-a-week enforcement and information-gathering in hot spots to prevent suspects from "adjusting to the cops' schedules and days off and committing crimes," Whent said.

A resident who was once heavily involved in Oakland crime and didn't want his name used for personal safety reasons, said, "lots of (violent) guys are locked up and others are laying low. A lot of the drug spots have been shut down, and there were lots of killings tied to those spots."

The man, who served prison time for a shooting, said a lot of violence-prone people have moved out of Oakland or are involved in less dangerous crimes, such as identity theft.

Only time will tell whether the trend will continue, he said. But without the positive developments from 2012, he said, "there would be a lot more murders."

In cases where motives are known, drug- and robbery-related killings as well as argument-fueled slayings declined from 2012. In all but seven of the 92 homicides, the weapon used was a firearm. Also, there was no mass killing such as the one at Oikos University in April 2012, where six students and one staff member were slain, allegedly by a disgruntled former student.

Whent, who has applied for the permanent chief's job, says he will "maintain course" on what has worked to keep the number down. In addition, three training academies are expected to graduate at least 100 new officers in 2014, and he expects increased staffing to result in fewer homicides and less other violence.

He also says the department will try to get more young people involved in their efforts, including having meetings with different groups to see how they and police can work together to reduce crime and improve community relations.

Lt. Drennon Lindsey, homicide unit commander, said investigators "are definitely seeing better relationships between (the department) and the community," which plays heavily into solving killings because more witnesses are coming forward or providing surveillance video. "We want to build on that."

Police solved more than 39 percent of the 2013 slayings, which she hopes to improve upon, since getting a killer off the street can in some instances prevent other slayings. Solving cases is also critical, she said, because when criminals see killers "arrested and held accountable, it makes them realize they don't want to go to prison."

Lindsey is adamant that there needs to be a cultural change in men ages 18 to 34 who are the core group involved in violence.

"They seem to have an inability to resolve a conflict in a nonviolent manner," she said. "Fighting over money, fighting over a woman, stuff they should resolve in a normal manner, they're not doing. Instead, it's a shooting, a stabbing or something else that results in violence or death. We have to change that. Lives are valuable. When one is taken, you can't get it back."

Follow Harry Harris at Twitter.com/harryharris15.