OAKLAND -- Though Karen King's flower shop lay just outside one of Oakland's most violent areas targeted for more police patrols, she didn't feel any safer late on the afternoon of Dec. 2 when gunmen in two cars sped down her street firing at each other as she was closing up the store.
One bullet hit the windshield of King's car, spraying glass into the face of her 86-year-old mother, who was sitting in the passenger seat. Even more terrifying, King's godchildren were visiting from out-of-town. "They didn't understand why we were telling them to get down," she said. "The whole thing was just too much for me."
After eight years on MacArthur Boulevard at 74th Street -- the same area where two police officers were shot dead three years ago -- Karen's Flowers closed its doors just after Christmas and will soon reopen downtown.
King's experience illustrates the challenges facing Oakland's understaffed police department and helps explain growing concerns about Mayor Jean Quan's 100-Block Community Initiative to Reduce Violence -- a crime-fighting plan aimed at Oakland's 100 most violent blocks.
Though saturation law enforcement coverage by multiple agencies has cut violent crime in some of the city's worst hot spots, crime is up citywide this year in almost every major category, including homicides.
The rising crime rate, especially burglaries and robberies, has residents worried that their neighborhoods aren't getting enough
"We've moved crime in the 100 blocks to different places," Chief Howard Jordan said last month after a community meeting. The department, he added, now is analyzing where the crime has gone and pursuing it.
But Oakland police must meet that challenge with nearly 200 fewer officers than it had three years ago because of budget shortfalls and high labor costs. Manpower is so low that overtime is used to fully staff beats, and internal affairs officers are being used to beef up patrols in the hills where burglaries have more than doubled so far this year.
Crime went down in Oakland between 2006 and 2010 as the department's ranks swelled to 832 officers. But crime began rising again last year -- contrary to national trends -- as the city made do with a significantly smaller police department.
The lack of officers makes any crime reduction plan a challenge, though some relief is on the way. A federal grant is paying for 25 new police officers who will be assigned to middle schools in high-crime areas, many in the 100 Blocks. The department also is preparing for a police academy in August and seeking funds for a second one.
Despite the stigma it carries, King wishes her shop had been in the 100 Blocks. "There's more police protection and services available there," she said.
Since Quan announced the 100-Block Initiative last October, critics have decried the city's refusal to disclose the exact blocks -- a necessity to prevent stigmatizing areas or hindering law enforcement operations, officials say.
Oakland officials have released maps of the primary clusters: two in West Oakland and several larger ones in East Oakland, where 92 percent of homicides occurred over the past five years.
The plan was designed to succeed in an era of limited police resources. It's built on improved crime data to target hot spots, coordination with other law enforcement agencies to supplement Oakland police and increased social services.
California Highway Patrol officers patrol along International Boulevard, a state highway. Oakland Housing Authority police have expanded their patrols in the 100 Blocks and probation officers are working more closely with Oakland police. Federal law enforcement agents are also working the area, and the district attorney has placed a prosecutor inside the police department to help officers charge major cases, many of which come out of the 100 Blocks.
"We've seen a huge increase in serial robbery cases (there); that wasn't happening before," District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said.
Beginning this year, city departments also have begun focusing their efforts on the 100 Blocks, with Public Works responding to more service calls.
Police couldn't provide specific statistics on the 100 Blocks, which span several beats. Quan said last month that initial reports show crime reduction has been more pronounced in West Oakland where the 100-Block areas are fewer and more condensed.
In a policing district that includes both 100-Block areas in West Oakland, shootings dropped 20 percent and murders were halved (from six to three) between two four-week periods, the first starting in January and the second ending in early March.
"One of the benefits is because we've reduced shootings there, it frees up other police officers to go to other calls for services," said Capt. Jeff Israel, who oversees West Oakland.
Most residents interviewed in one West Oakland hot spot said the streets felt safer. "There used to be a whole lot of people hanging out and now it's quiet," said Lynn Jackson, who lives in a high-rise apartment building near the intersection of 8th and Filbert streets and across from the Acorn housing projects.
Crime reduction or dislocation
While West Oakland is quieter, major crimes are up citywide. The most recent comprehensive crime statistics show that through April 8 murders increased 26 percent compared with last year, although the murder rate would have been flat if not for the seven shooting deaths at Oikos University. Rapes were up 41 percent compared with last year, aggravated assaults up 1 percent, robberies up 35 percent, burglaries up 37 percent and vehicle thefts up 32 percent, according to police statistics.
In February, one East Oakland police beat bounded by High Street, Bancroft Avenue and Brookdale Avenue saw shootings jump 80 percent, robberies 56 percent and burglaries 79 percent. The beat is not part of the 100 Blocks.
"There's definitely an impact outside the so-called 100 Blocks," said Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente, who represents that East Oakland beat and is hoping to run against Quan if there's a recall election.
The 100-Block plan also has taken heat in the hills where several residents are upset that some officers assigned to the city's community policing program were temporarily moved last July to higher crime beats or two temporary crime reduction teams that operate in the 100 Blocks.
The reassigned officers have comprised much of Oakland's stepped-up policing in the 100 Blocks, and helped bring down crime citywide in the second half of last year -- a triumph that Quan in January touted as a successful example of 100-Block strategies. But last month she clarified that the reassignment of community officers was initiated by former Chief Anthony Batts to cope with a shrinking department and was not part of the 100-Block plan.
"The reality is I have only added new resources," she said. "I haven't taken them away." Quan also noted that last year she pushed a failed tax measure to pay for more police.
She said it's too early to judge her initiative, which will include additional law enforcement and social programs. "If we have a chance to get jobs for some of these young people," she said, "crime will go down."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.