This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community.
I wrote a story this week about the perils of living in a city where intimidation is rife -- where ordinary people trying to live decent lives often find themselves threatened in their own homes and communities. Over the last two years I have heard a version of this tragic story more times than I can count -- people cowed into silence or complicity because of their address, or something they saw or heard.
Many of these people are scared -- scared to talk to the police or to each other, scared to be the kind of neighbors they perhaps want to be, or know they should be, scared or perhaps just unwilling anymore to build the kinds of neighborhoods and communities they can claim to really own, not just live in. Instead, many are hostages to gangs, drug dealers, murderers and thugs.
There are moves afoot to deal with this problem. As my colleague Tammerlin Drummond reported recently, Oakland plans to relaunch a version of a nationally recognized violence prevention program called Ceasefire. It was pioneered by David Kennedy, a Harvard researcher and currently the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College.
The program calls for communities to gather around the individuals within their midst who pose the greatest danger to them -- whether it's because they are members of a gang or something else -- and pressure them to change their ways, or else. Ideally, the possibility for employment, mentorship, tutoring and public assistance of one kind or another is enough to sway these individuals. The "or else" component calls for the vast bureaucracy of law enforcement -- police, probation, parole among others -- to be at the ready to step in and take more drastic steps if the initial outreach efforts fail. It is a laudable goal, and one that I hope works.
It seems to me that there is a larger question here about public safety. Ceasefire, as effective as it has been elsewhere, is unlikely to be a panacea for the larger public safety issues plaguing Oakland. Indeed, it seems to me that Oakland has failed to foster a vigorous debate about what is best for the city -- and in particular for those residents of the city who are the most affected by violence.
When you have people running the streets with guns creating havoc, as we do in Oakland, do these extreme times require extreme measures?
Moreover, and let's be honest, the people who are most affected by violence are also very often the quietest -- immigrants whose legal status is dubious at best, impressionable teens who can't or don't want to "snitch," overworked parents living in gang-infested neighborhoods who just want to get by and avoid bringing unwanted attention to the chaos that surrounds them. These are the people who need help -- and, yes, who also need to help -- and who need to be consulted about what works and what does not in their communities.
The fact is that other cities, like New York, have dealt very effectively with violence in the past by more aggressive, proactive policing, including measures like the controversial "stop and frisk" policy recently initiated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 53 percent of Hispanics supported "stop and frisk" -- even though Hispanics, along with African-Americans, represented 87 percent of the people stopped and frisked. When I go to crime prevention council meetings in Oakland, many of the African-American and Latino residents who attend routinely ask for a more aggressive and proactive police presence, not the opposite.
The "stop and frisk" strategy has been lambasted by critics who say it unfairly targets minorities. But as a recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out, African-Americans and Latinos represent year after year an overwhelming majority of the homicide victims in New York, just as they do in Oakland. The WSJ article made the case that New York's "proactive" police strategy saved the lives of something like 10,000 African American and Latino lives since the early 1990s, when crime as at its highest there.
Over the years, the Oakland Police Department has lost a lot of credibility with the people its officers are sworn to protect. Corruption, ineptitude and sheer laziness have taken a toll on the public trust. So any policy that emboldened them would likely be criticized. But I know from my own observations that there are plenty of quiet supporters for measures that would enable people to take back their own communities -- and a stronger police presence is a big part of that equation.
Let people who are most affected -- the vast majority of them African-American and Latino, living in neighborhoods that are poorly patrolled by police, overrun by gangs and beaten down with despair -- have a say. You might be surprised at the answer. I have been.
Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.