It's hard to put a price on death. But 124 times in Oakland last year, homicides forced someone to perform this perverse calculation. Tragic circumstances can compel individuals, neighborhoods and cities to put a dollar amount on the cost of killing.
Ultimately, the burden of a homicide is shared by many. And the cost is steep. Violent crimes absorb about a quarter of Alameda County's general fund budget, according to a 2008 report by the County Administrator's Office.
Shaneice Davis was asleep in bed when a bullet ripped through her bedroom wall, hitting the 21-year-old mother in the head just before midnight April 7, 2008. It didn't matter that she wasn't the intended target of the two bullets that pierced her skull. The deadly projectiles still found their way through the white stucco of her bedroom wall, though it was not for another hour and a half that her mother discovered what had happened. They had been sleeping. A familiar scene then unfolded.
The red-and-blue lights, the sirens, the police, the yellow tape, the crowd, the wailing, the shock. The paramedics arrived, an ambulance sped into the parking lot. They whisked away Davis, desperately trying to keep her tethered to life. Treating patients like Davis can be extremely complicated, and may require multiple specialists, surgeries and other care, officials from the county's Emergency Medical Services agency said. But in the end, despite all efforts, many become victims of homicide.
From the moment the shooter pulled the trigger to two days later, when Davis was taken off life-support, her death cost Oakland and Alameda County millions of dollars, from trauma care to the police investigation to the work of an overloaded social services system. The incalculable cost to Davis' family — including an infant daughter — was paid in grief, fear and trauma. Consuelo Starks could never have known the fatefulness of her decision to move into one of two identical, boxy, four-unit apartment buildings in East Oakland. When she found the apartment at 8296 MacArthur Blvd., friends told her to go somewhere else. She didn't. "Where could I go when I was running out of time?" she recalled. Anyway, it was about all she could afford.
Even before she moved in, a teenage neighbor, Tommiesha Jones, had died. Whoever fired the shots that killed Davis was aiming at a crowd gathered for an outdoor memorial for Jones. Then in June, Zaire Washington, 24, was shot to death on the street outside the same apartment complex. In August, Kennah Wilson, 18, was killed just a few feet away. She was seven months pregnant. The baby died.
Linda Jones, Washington's mother, was the last person to leave the apartment complex. She was packing on a sunny April afternoon, looking forward to moving her family to a quieter place, somewhere not near a liquor store. "It's really sad over here," she said, gesturing to MacArthur Boulevard. "I should have left when Shaneice got killed," Jones said. "When Kennah got killed, that was too much. We were going to back-to-back funerals."
Dignity has a price
Two of the victims, Davis and Washington, are buried near each other at Roselawn Cemetery in Livermore. Closer to Oakland would have better, but much more expensive. A plot at Roselawn alone costs $3,400.
"It's like buying real estate," said Gregory Atkins, who owns two Oakland funeral homes. He worked as an embalmer for the Los Angeles coroner's office from 2003 to 2006, when he took over Whitted Williams Funeral Home on Foothill Boulevard and Baker Williams Mortuary on Eighth Street. Between his two funeral homes, Atkins received about 60 homicide victims last year. For a few, whose families could not pay and were not eligible for victim compensation, he has performed services for little or no pay.
A high homicide rate drives up business, Atkins said. But homicides are not lucrative because funeral homes have a lot of overhead costs. It also takes Atkins long hours of painstaking work to fix the ravages of violence in the case of homicides, especially those involving gunfire, he said.
"I would rather have natural causes," he said, adding it is less work and "more natural when you think of it. A mother burying a son "... that's not the way God planned it."
Safety at a cost
After Wilson's slaying, police appealed to the community for help in finding the suspects. "These lives have to count for something," said Sgt. Lou Cruz at the time. "The killers can't go unchecked. There has to be an accounting for this. The only way to prevent them from doing this again is to find them."
But there have been no arrests in either Wilson's or Davis' deaths.
"Her killer is out there," Starks, said. "And he's going to stay out there."
The department spent at least $15,000 in officers' hours investigating Davis' death but likely much more because police had so little to work with.
That money, as well as the $1.9 million all the 2008 Oakland homicides cost, at a minimum, to investigate, could pay for youth mentoring, restorative justice and prisoner re-entry programs that help prevent violence. Intervention programs don't provide a simple, sweeping solution. But by steering youths down a new path, the programs do lower the chances that many heading in the wrong direction will commit a crime later, acting police Chief Howard Jordan said.
Yet, the guidance programs' budgets are being slashed or cut altogether.
"It used to come out of the general fund. But it's just not there anymore," Jordan said. That means more youths might slip through the cracks, he added. "Resources — that's what it comes down to."
Instead, California's prisons and jails keep 171,000 adult inmates separated from the public at a cost that is expected to exceed $10 billion this year, according to figures from the California Legislative Analyst's Office. California jails account for another 80,000 inmates and $2 billion. That money would go a lot further if it were invested in community programs that train workers, educate students and otherwise help neighborhoods address problems, advocates said.
"It is very expensive once a crime is committed," said Bill Heiser, program coordinator for the Community Safety and Justice program at the Urban Strategies Council in Oakland.
"The prevention part is absolutely critical because you get so much more out of your investment," he said.
Without intervention, they are more likely to be caught in the cycle of violent crime, which in subtle ways eats at neighborhoods and affects the rest of the city — far from the actual killing.
Image an issue
Crime in one area creates a bad image for all of Oakland, said Linda Braz, director of Metrovation Brokerage and a longtime consultant to some of the city's largest retail developments.
The violence affects the city's attempts to defy its reputation for being a dangerous city, making it harder to lure business and tourism dollars — and with them much-needed revenue. If there is nowhere to shop in a neighborhood, people take their dollars to other districts or cities, Braz said. "We take two steps forward and five steps back," Braz said. "It's an uphill battle."
That does not mean Oakland is as simple as the image created outside the city. Some retailers and restaurateurs have been affected by crime, namely burglaries and holdups, but most remain in business, said Keira Williams, an analyst with the city's Community and Economic Development Agency. Many are doing well, she added.
"While they acknowledge the challenges, they have chosen to be in Oakland. In other words, they are going to come to Oakland, period. For others it might be an issue but no more today than in past years," she said.
But crime is an issue for people who live in the districts where it happens.
The two apartment buildings on MacArthur Boulevard went into foreclosure and were sold in a public auction in February, dragging down an already economically ravaged block, where drug deals take place during daylight hours outside empty storefronts. In some areas, blight has long filled what was once occupied by people, shops and parks, dragging down tourism, property values and taxes, which make up the majority of Oakland's budget.
Residents who can leave in search of a sense of safety move elsewhere, polarizing Oakland neighborhoods. But even in their new homes, bars go up on windows, watchdogs are bought, self-defense classes fill up, motion-detection lighting is installed and gated communities are built.
Fear of crime plays a major part in how people decide where they want to live, Jordan said. The police need merchants, residents and the city to work together in making neighborhoods attractive places in which to live and do business. But, Jordan added, "it's very difficult to convince people to be more active in an area they fear."
But all this — Oakland's image, economic development, property taxes — mean little to Starks, who lives in a quiet Oakland neighborhood with Davis' daughter, now 2 years old. "I didn't want to move just anywhere," she said, staring in the direction of her old home. "That was my mistake moving to the other place."