OAKLAND -- Could crime be reduced by as much as 80 percent in Oakland? It happened in Los Angeles.
Connie Rice and Susan Lee, co-founders of the Advancement Project, Urban Peace initiative, addressed a crowd of more than 100 people at the Impact Hub on Sunday as part of the Safe Oakland Speaker Series, and explained how Los Angeles dramatically reduced crime in that city under similar circumstances as Oakland.
District 4 Councilwoman Libby Schaaf invited Rice and Lee to come and speak to residents because she believes residents can learn from the experiences and lessons of Los Angeles.
That city reduced violent crime by 81 percent and property crime by 68.5 percent while emerging from a consent decree similar to Oakland's.
The presentation was followed by a discussion with panelists including police Chief Sean Whent; state Sen. Loni Hancock, chair of the state Senate's Public Safety Committee; and David Muhammed, CEO of Solutions Inc., a consulting firm focusing on juvenile and criminal justice issues, and the former chief probation officer of the Alameda County.
Rice and Lee's organization, the Advancement Project, a multiracial civil rights organization, was credited with helping to change the culture of the Los Angeles Police Department and transforming it into an effective community policing organization.
Reform centered around Watts, a neighborhood dotted with public housing projects and home to many of the city's low-income residents, minorities, and gangs.
"We were a mess, a real mess," Rice said. "The black community was at war with LAPD, and I mean war. People lay in wait to shoot police. The community hated LAPD. LAPD treated African-Americans with open contempt. They were rude.
"People lived in a reign of terror. This can't be right. This can't be allowed to continue. Kids couldn't walk to school safely. It's not right," Rice said, in a video explaining the project, shown to the audience.
Rice, a civil rights litigator, had spent years suing the LAPD, until William Bratton became the police chief in 2002. Bratton was willing to talk, so Rice stopped suing the department and began discussing the problems that plagued the department and the city.
The suppression strategies to quell violence clearly weren't working, Lee said. The project's approach was to target the structural problems of violence with health and social services that were easily accessible to the community that needed them, minimizing red tape.
The culture of LAPD was also overhauled. A special unit for Watts was created, training officers in community policing tactics, building a trusting relationship with the community. The police arrested only those that committed violent crimes and predatory crimes, Rice said. The police reached out to the elders in the community and aided in cleaning up drug-infested and litter-strewn streets.
"Oakland solutions have to be Oakland-based. What worked in L.A. won't necessarily work here," Lee said.
But the good news is that Oakland already has a lot of services in place.
"We target hot people and hot places and offer services and support and opportunities. We have a lot of good work going on, but we have a problem with coordination," Muhammed said.
"I came away with new hope today," said John Simmons, a Montclair resident. "When are we going to stop putting money in (attorney) John Burris' account? We have all the parts here; we just have to put them in the right order."
As for changing the culture of the police department, "We have had a lot of changes in direction and don't see things through. OPD historically hasn't believed that the community was part of the solution that we now do," Whent said.
"We will have a very significant turnover in the force. If we hire carefully, we will have an opportunity for change."
The final ingredient is political will.
"Please understand," Rice said. "We had the perfect storm. The political will was forced. You will have to create your own momentum together and keep it going long enough to make change. You need to find three politicians that will not let this die. If you can get neighborhoods to care about the neighborhoods you don't want to live in, you will get somewhere."
"You all know that the winds of change are upon this city in a way that we haven't seen in years," District 3 Councilmember Lynette McElhaney said. "We have had a massive turnover on (the City) Council. We are not bound by practices of the past and can learn from the practices of others.
"We are putting our arms around something painful. There are far too many people crying. This is the last piece we need to make Oakland perfection."
Schaaf said: "Part of reducing crime is building trust in the communities that have crime. That's the L.A. story. The same work can result in reducing crime here. That's what I want for Oakland."