For the past five years Oakland police have recovered an average of more than 1,400 guns a year -- many seized from criminals, and others turned in by residents who no longer want them in their homes.
But those statistics are on track to take a nose-dive this year, and not because there are fewer guns on the streets.
It's because budget cuts have left the city with fewer law enforcement personnel for specialized enforcement teams who used to target gun crimes, officials say. And with shootings and homicides on the rise, the plunging gun recovery rate is a serious problem.
The Oakland Police Department has taken in 680 guns (516 handguns, 164 rifles and shotguns) so far this year, an average of 85 per month, said Holly Joshi, the department's spokeswoman. At that rate, she said, OPD will take in about 1020 guns this year, down from 1,334 in 2010, and 1,601 in 2009.
Joshi said the loss of 80 police officers to budget cuts a year ago and the reorganization of the remaining force severely hampered the department's ability to proactively go after criminals. OPD has 655 sworn officers after nearly 30 were rehired earlier this year. The department is authorized to have 669 officers.
Mayor Jean Quan said she received a commitment this spring from the Obama administration to step up the partnership between OPD and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. ATF already assists OPD with identifying firearm traffickers and with tracing guns used in Oakland crimes, but Quan said the agencies have been meeting to work out details for additional enforcement actions this fall.
"That's why I was so anxious to get ATF involved, to get the joint operations going," Quan said, while walking along International Boulevard handing out fliers asking for help solving the killing of Jose Esparza, who was shot and killed by armed robbers midday Sunday.
"A lot of the those joint agency operations are not just for drugs, but also for guns," Quan added. "If we don't do something, (the numbers) will be back up."
Oakland City Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente (Glenview-Fruitvale) said gun crime is the "biggest problem we have in Oakland." He said he is "ashamed" when people come up to him on the street and say they are scared and ask what he is doing about it. His aunt and other seniors who live in the Posada de Colores senior apartments in the Fruitvale district tell him they are afraid to even go to Walgreens to buy milk.
"Shootings happen almost every night, and innocent bystanders get shot, and we are still talking about it," De La Fuente said. "It's a challenge, and we cannot ignore it. It's not just one single thing that is going to make a difference, but every possible tool we can give police to go after criminals, such as the gang injunction, which gives police the opportunity to get some of these guns off the street."
Most of the weapons that end up in the department's property lockers are recovered at crime scenes or discovered in the possession of parolees and others who are not authorized to legally own guns. Some are turned in by family members who no longer want them in their homes.
More than 3,000 weapons are stored at OPD. Once the cases are adjudicated, and the prosecutors give the OK, the weapons are scheduled for destruction. Some of the 500 or so weapons currently authorized for destruction include a military rocket launcher, rifles, shotguns and a variety of handguns -- some automatic, some semi-automatic, some revolvers.
Assistant Chief Howard Jordan agreed that the staffing and workload demand on the force had impacted the department's ability to recover guns.
"Right now, there is the inability to give officers the free time to be proactive and pursue some of these violent offenders we think are armed and dangerous," Jordan said.
At one point, the department had six crime-reduction teams, a gang unit and other specialized units. Now it is down to three crime-reduction teams citywide and a gun/gang investigative task force. That task force recovered six guns Tuesday after a standoff with a robbery suspect in the Melrose district. The team searched two homes and made five arrests.
Jordan said that since the recent officer rehirings, the department has been able to put together some specialized enforcement efforts to focus on hot spots and violent offenders. The effort has resulted in the arrest of 22 parolees and the recovery of three guns.
"I think you are going to see a dramatic shift in productivity (and more gun seizures) because of the influx of officers returning to the department," Jordan said. "The more officers on the street, the more opportunity for gun seizures and arrests."