Oakland, California experienced high levels of gang-related violence in recent decades. At one point, law enforcement officials identified 78 different gangs with 3,800 core members, underscoring the need for more effective, sustainable interventions. In 2006, there were 145 homicides in Oakland, the highest since 1995. The number of murders decreased gradually to 90 in 2010 (Vara 2013), but the murder rate was still five times higher than state and national averages (DOJ FBI 2010). Over 80 percent of Oakland homicides were committed with a firearm, and over 75 percent of those took place on a public street. Young, black males in Oakland between ages 18 and 39 were 10 times more likely to die from shootings compared with other city residents. Individuals under criminal justice supervision accounted for 36 percent of murder victims in 2010 while they represented just two percent of the city’s population (Urban Strategies Council 2011).
When OJJDP announced the availability of CBVP funding, city officials in Oakland were eager to apply. The application was developed by a consortium of city entities with the Department of Human Services appointed lead agency. Unlike other cities that locate centralized power within the office of the mayor, Oakland’s mayor shares governing responsibilities with the Oakland City Council. A City Administrator reports to the Mayor’s Office and to the City Council, and the Department of Human Services (DHS) and Oakland Police Department (OPD) report to the City Administrator.
Oakland was well positioned to apply for federal funding. The City had already been implementing Project Exile, a gun violence reduction program piloted in Richmond, Virginia. Because of Oakland’s high population of offenders returning from prison, the City Administrator supplemented the city’s violence reduction efforts with Project Choice, which provided resources for re-entry. Neither program was simple to implement. Responsibilities for both projects were eventually transferred to the Department of Human Services (DHS), which reinvigorated the projects by collaborating with local and regional providers. The State of California provided additional assistance through two California Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention (CalGRIP) grants.
In 2008, Oakland joined the California Cities Gang Prevention Network and convened a multi-agency team that developed a plan to address gang prevention. One of the primary objectives identified by the team was to improve and formalize collaboration among agency partners. This resulted in the creation of the Oakland Gang Prevention Task Force. In June of 2009, the Task Force adopted the Oakland Gang Prevention Plan and in 2011 the Mayor’s Office assumed oversight of the Task Force. Soon thereafter, the City also began to incorporate the Ceasefire program, based on the focused deterrence strategy promulgated by the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College.
Oakland embraced the Ceasefire strategy because many of the city’s other violence reduction programs did not address the highest-risk members of the community. The initial version of Ceasefire, however, was not very successful. Program staff told researchers that participants were not made sufficiently aware of the consequences for noncompliance. Unfortunately, the violence did not appear to be decreasing and the initiative quickly fell apart (Johnson 2012). When Oakland received a CBVP grant in 2010, the City intended to integrate Ceasefire with key elements of the Cure Violence model, combining them into a new, citywide initiative called “Oakland Unite” (PR Newswire 2012). A new program planner position was created to manage the OJJDP grant and to expand street outreach efforts as favored by both Ceasefire and Cure Violence. The City hoped to blend the focused deterrence approach of Ceasefire and the public health model of Cure Violence.
To complicate matters, City officials knew that any new Oakland Unite activities supported by the CBVP grant would have to be integrated with existing programs funded by Oakland’s Violence Prevention and Public Safety Act, or Measure Y, an initiative funded by a ballot measure beginning in 2004. Administered through DHS, Measure Y supported 24 different organizations and provided a network of services targeting the root causes of violence. The Measure Y initiative provided funding over a ten-year period, all focused on the prevention of crime and violence (City of Oakland 2012). DHS encouraged partnerships across agencies to transform gun violence reduction efforts from isolated programs into a citywide strategy. The violence prevention work put in place by Measure Y was also supported by federal Second Chance grants in 2010 ($750,000), 2011 ($375,000) and 2012-14 ($750,000), as well as a 2010 local Community Development Block grant. The work involved several strategies, including comprehensive youth services, family violence intervention, young adult reentry services, and violent incident/crisis response strategies.
Oakland used the new CBVP grant dollars to introduce or expand key components of the Cure Violence model and to bolster efforts under the Ceasefire model. The CBVP grant allowed the City to hire additional outreach workers, expand the use of Ceasefire call-ins, connect justice-involved young people to school and employment opportunities, create a public education and community awareness campaign, and establish stronger ties with the faith community. DHS staff members were responsible for overseeing both Measure Y and the CBVP grant. They maintained relevant databases and supervised the agencies involved in the broader initiative.
To maximize the impact of its efforts, the Oakland Unite initiative targeted police beats where incidents of crime and violence were most likely to occur, where residents were most likely to be the victims of violence, and where high-risk offenders tended to live. Project staff identified the highest risk individuals using a list of factors to distinguish young people who: (1) were under parole or probation supervision; (2) had a prior gun conviction; (3) were identified within a hotspot area; (4) belonged to a gang or clique; (5) were known to OPD or had been required to attend a Ceasefire call-in; (6) had been a victim of gun violence; and (7) were under the age of 25. Outreach workers were trained to inquire about these criteria when speaking with the young people they encountered in the community. Individuals meeting at least four risk factors were considered eligible for intensive outreach, case management, and other services provided through the CBVP grant and Oakland Unite. When someone did not meet the necessary criteria, outreach workers attempted to steer them toward other service providers.
Oakland Unite was geographically focused and its target area changed over the course of the grant period. Four areas were selected originally—two in West Oakland (Hoover and Lower Bottoms), one in Central Oakland (High Street Corridor), and one in East Oakland (Elmhurst/Macarthur Corridor). In 2012, the target areas were modified due to shifting violence patterns. Program staff selected five new target areas to work in: two in West Oakland (McClymonds and Lowell/Acorn) and three in East Oakland (Havenscourt, Parker, and Elmhurst). The boundaries of the new target areas were also better aligned with the Mayor’s 100 Block Initiative to Reduce Violence, which focused on the areas accounting for most of Oakland’s shootings and homicides.
Oakland used its CBVP grant to combine a number of violence prevention and gang reduction strategies, including street outreach, crisis response and support, reentry support and job training/job placement, as well as public education campagins, community engagement work, and the Ceasefire call-ins. While each strategy was important, City officials hoped the integration of all strategies would make their approach more successful. For example, street outreach was designed to complement a strong enforcement response. In turn, the police were expected to respond to community needs and concerns by rebuilding trust with the community.
DHS was involved in the implementation of most grantee programs. The agency provided technical assistance and communicated weekly with various organizations, including Youth ALIVE!, Catholic Charities of the East Bay, and all the street outreach teams. Holding regular interagency meetings helped to clarify the roles and responsibilities of each partner and enhanced cross-agency collaboration.
Street outreach was a primary component of Oakland’s CBVP effort. Overseen by the violence prevention coordinator, outreach work was carried out by teams that maintained a consistent presence in targeted areas during nights and weekends when violence was most likely to occur. Outreach teams included outreach workers, violence interrupters, case managers, and area team leads. The outreach workers’ primary duties were to build relationships with people in the service area, encourage individuals to take a violence-free path, and encourage people to bring their friends into the initiative. Outreach workers interacted with participants for a limited number of hours by first mentoring them and taking care of minor issues before referring them to a case manager for help with more specific goals. Violence interrupters worked in the neighborhoods, mediating ongoing conflicts and preventing retaliations. The time demands on outreach workers often exceeded available resources, however, so the tasks of street outreach and violence interruption were sometimes blended.
Program staff focused on engaging youth and young adults in each neighborhood to obtain timely information about who was involved in risky conflicts and where the greatest threats of retribution might exist. Their influence depended on their personal credibility. Outreach workers and violence interrupters were seen as credible by participants when their life experiences were similar to those of the young people they encountered in the neighborhood. Many had been incarcerated or involved in gun violence or gang activity at some point, but they had changed their lives and were now working to prevent violence. Program staff members were powerful examples that it was possible to live a life of respect and purpose without being involved in violence.
STAFFING AND TRAINING
The violence prevention coordinator in Oakland was a DHS employee who also served as an outreach team manager and a key liaison between law enforcement and the various outreach teams. Members of the outreach teams were employed by two independent non-profit organizations, Healthy Oakland in West Oakland and California Youth Outreach in East Oakland. Both programs were overseen by DHS and funded through Measure Y and CBVP. They began conducting street outreach on behalf of DHS as early as 2008. When the City received the OJJDP grant, the new funds enabled Oakland to expand outreach services in the targeted areas by doubling the number of workers from nine to 18 over the course of the grant period.
The total number of workers on each outreach team varied according to the host organization’s resources. West Oakland’s team included several half-time (20 hours per week) staff along with a case manager, program manager, and team lead. East Oakland’s teams had fewer individuals but more of them worked full-time (32 to 40 hours per week). Managers at both Healthy Oakland and California Youth Outreach worked closely with their outreach teams to ensure proper documentation of fieldwork and accurate data entry into DHS’s Cityspan database. DHS held trainings to facilitate consistent data entry. The outreach teams produced weekly reports that estimated the number of individuals involved in each intervention incident and the number of individuals who may have avoided gun injuries because of their intervention. DHS met regularly with the organizations and other key partners, including representatives from the school district, police, and probation and parole. Monthly “Y-Team” meetings helped to foster coordination between all those involved.
The violence prevention coordinator oversaw the hiring of outreach team members. It was crucial for all outreach workers to have street credibility, be able to engage with people, be dependable, and have empathy for their clients. Successful outreach workers also had to maintain a stable, crime-free and drug-free lifestyle. While the hiring process varied, outreach teams typically notified Oakland Unite staff when an outreach position was available. The violence prevention coordinator asked for their recommendations and then the teams began recruitment and preliminary interviews. The violence prevention coordinator usually participated in the second round of interviews with potential candidates. The interview process also included an observation component so the violence prevention coordinator could watch candidates interacting with community residents.
Every outreach team underwent training developed by the Chicago headquarters of Cure Violence. The training provided a consistent framework for outreach work and reinforced the program’s standard approach. Outreach workers needed to know how to engage with people in emotional situations and to mediate conflicts as they encountered them in the street. Over the years, the training incorporated anger management skills and substance abuse treatment knowledge as well. Trainings were usually held twice a year for three to four day stretches, with booster trainings as needed. Outreach workers also received training on administrative tasks like data entry and data management practices, as well as personal safety. Outreach workers and violence interrupters had to constantly be aware of their surroundings. They may be engaged in a complicated, tension-filled conversation late at night in a dangerous area while also attending to the warning signs of potential violence so they could know when to leave. By paying attention to their own feelings, outreach workers learned to protect themselves in order to perform their duties.
Staff described street outreach as a “slow dance” between workers and community members. The outreach team would cautiously reach out to high-risk individuals, emphasizing that they represented the neighborhood and were not associated with law enforcement. Once they were able to dispel any suspicion, they relied on their personal experiences and existing relationships to build ties with residents and to encourage high-risk participants to listen to messages of non-violence. When they encountered indifference, outreach workers would work slowly to break through barriers and form stronger connections. Trust between outreach workers and community members developed slowly and required care and consideration.
The outreach team faced a number of challenges. The dynamics of group violence in Oakland did not often involve clearly defined gangs with set rivalries. Outreach workers sometimes found it difficult to predict where and when violence would erupt and the program’s target areas had to shift a number of times to follow the violence. Constantly changing target areas, however, made it difficult for the team to establish the relationships needed to build rapport and trust with residents. Outreach workers, of course, knew they would never have perfect knowledge of where violence was to occur. Teams needed to focus on designated hot spot areas while anticipating violence outside these areas as well. The solution was to spend 75 percent of their time in hot spots and 25 percent outside those areas.
Program staff also had to learn how to balance their relationships with police and neighborhood residents. Outreach workers informed the police that sharing information on potential shootings without their clients’ knowledge and consent could damage their credibility and safety. To clarify roles and solidify the program’s relationship with police, the violence prevention coordinator held frequent police trainings. Trainings were designed to help police understand the important work being done by outreach workers and the fact that outreach clients feared the police and would never share critical information with them.
Staffing issues presented challenges for outreach teams. The West Oakland team often had trouble finding staff with enough street credibility to be successful violence interrupters. At the same time, however, they needed to know that staff members were not influenced by their former lifestyles in ways that would make them unreliable. Hiring the right staff was difficult and the need to recruit more staff was nearly constant. Due to the nature of the job and the stress it entailed, outreach workers typically stayed with the program for a year or two at most. Staffing issues had to be addressed promptly to ensure outreach teams were fully staffed.
Outreach workers also struggled with their own exposure to violence. Even when workers were not traumatized directly, their time working in dangerous and unpleasant situations tended to have a cumulative, negative effect. In some cases, the work triggered vicarious trauma and post-traumatic stress responses. Supervisors in the office tried to address these issues by ensuring staff members had the necessary resources to cope with difficulties arising from work. New team members were especially vulnerable to these issues. Oakland Unite began to insist that new outreach workers meet fairly stringent conduct requirements during training to ensure that they understood the seriousness of the commitment. The program even required that outreach workers be clean and sober for a minimum of one year before they could be hired.
Deciding how to deploy the meager resources of the program was also a challenge. The violence prevention coordinator surveyed community members to learn how they would prefer to focus the street outreach effort. The results suggested that people were most interested in employment opportunities for at-risk individuals. As a result, Oakland Unite staff initially dedicated their outreach efforts to job referrals for residents. The strategy was selected with good intentions, but resulted in residents seeing outreach workers mainly as job providers. As this was not the goal of Oakland Unite, outreach workers had to reformulate their approach. If a community member asked for a job while interacting with an outreach worker, staff learned to respond by first informing the individual that the program had no job opportunities to offer, but that they could help them to get their lives back on track by avoiding violence. The outreach team slowly transformed their reputations into neighborhood peacemakers.
OTHER KEY COMPONENTS
Mental Health Supports
DHS and the violence prevention coordinator were dedicated to providing outreach staff with mental health supports. To ensure that everyone had the resources and action plans necessary to thrive, the program hosted weekly individual meetings and monthly team-wide meetings focused on well-being and mental health. As part of the larger Healthy Communities, Inc. network, which included a full health clinic and an on-site psychotherapist, the West Oakland team had reliable access to psychological supports.
Oakland Unite also organized yearly, multi-day training sessions involving team-building exercises and traumatic stress coping skills. In 2013, Catholic Charities (then coordinating homicide-response mental health services) began to offer the outreach teams circles of support” using the restorative justice model. The meetings were facilitated by the project director with Catholic Charities of the East Bay and were supported through Oakland Unite funds for the Crisis Response Support Network (CRSN).
In late 2013, Oakland Unite staff began a pilot clinical supervision program for case managers, with the goal of eventually extending services to street outreach case managers and area team leads. Clinical supervision provided an opportunity for staff members to receive an additional means of emotional support. Following the pilot’s success, Oakland Unite applied for and received additional OJJDP funding that supported the expansion of services for case managers.
Oakland Unite modeled its crisis response and support strategy on the Cure Violence model, using violence interrupters to anticipate violent incidents and prevent retaliations. The program was careful to communicate with the police department about its activities, but only through the street outreach coordinator. Individual outreach workers developed strong working relationships with Oakland police officers and these collaborations sometimes lasted for several years. When a shooting occurred that involved a high-risk or gang-involved youth or young adult, police officers would contact street outreach who dispatched crisis responders to the scene and/or the hospital to assist the friends and family of the victim. The outreach workers offered support and case management services and worked to quiet down any friends or family of the victim who may be looking to retaliate.
Outreach workers also collaborated with two community-based organizations (Youth ALIVE! and Catholic Charities) to provide crisis response and support. These organizations worked together to respond to homicides and to help families of homicide victims navigate their grief. Youth ALIVE! operated three main program components: Teens on Target, Caught in the Crossfire, and the Khadafy Washington Project. Teens on Target trained teenagers to advocate against and prevent violence in their communities, the Caught in the Crossfire initiative visited individuals who were victims of shootings or who had friends who were victims of shootings to prevent retaliatory violence, and The Khadafy Washington Project provided immediate crisis response to families of homicide victims. Following a homicide, OPD’s Homicide Unit provided the Khadafy Project with the names of families of homicide victims.
Catholic Charities provided case management support and supplemented its crisis intervention work with emergency relocation help, individual and family counseling, the circles of support program, and referrals to other support groups and social activities. By providing an immediate and direct response to violent incidents, crisis responders hoped to stop retaliatory violence before it occurred, thus changing the overall culture of violence in the community.
Youth case managers also helped Oakland Unite participants to re-enroll in school and connect with employment. Measure Y resources provided some funding for employment of high-risk youth in community-based organizations. Youth had access to afterschool positions, temporary employment, and paid job training. Case management focused on academic reintegration and success (i.e. attendance and performance) as well as employment guidance. A team consisting of representatives from the juvenile justice system, probation, schools, and case managers provided comprehensive support services including monitoring each youth’s academic progress and helping youth complete court orders.
Engagement with services was not always a straightforward process, as responses were intentionally tailored toward individual need. In general, the process began as an case manager received clients from different sources, including Ceasefire call-ins, street outreach, and the trauma intervention specialists at Highland Hospital. After a client was referred, the case manager spent up to a month building rapport. The majority of clients did not ask for services. Rather, the outreach director relied on observations of client behaviors to determine which services were most appropriate. Collaboration with Ceasefire helped the case manager steer at-risk youth and young adults away from involvement in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors were sometimes willing to waive warrants or even pretrial holds if a young person was actively engaged with the program. The police department allowed young people to turn in weapons with no questions asked if the outreach team was already helping the individual with referrals to employment programs and other services. According to program leaders, these strategies enjoyed strong support from the Oakland Police Department and City Hall.
Public Education Campaign and Community Engagement
Community support for Oakland Unite developed slowly. Some residents were reluctant to trust the effort and continued to believe that all criminals should be imprisoned. Many residents, however, were more supportive and they began to say so in public meetings. Oakland Unite launched a campaign called “Messengers4Change” to support public education and community engagement. A community engagement coordinator, hired with CBVP funding, facilitated the effort. The campaign trained community members, faith groups, and volunteers to assist in demonstrations and responses to shootings. Focused primarily on area “hot spots,” the public education campaign sought to reinforce community values that rejected gun violence and promoted the use of local resources by youth and young adults. When Messengers4Change began, it did not have a unique name and most residents knew it simply as “Measure Y.” Staff later changed the name so that the community could more strongly identify with its mission. Once the overall Oakland strategy was re-branded as “Oakland Unite,” the name Messengers4Change had already become known and was left unchanged.
In addition to its unique name, the project developed its own logo. The Messengers4Change logo was placed on flyers, t-shirts and banners that were visibly posted at all events. Messengers4Change worked in the community to organize block parties, peace walks, motivational speeches, BBQs, and park gatherings. Toward the end of each year, Messengers4Change partnered with the Mayor’s office to hold a toy drive followed by a party where the toys were distributed. Staff members passed out flyers and knocked on doors to get residents involved. Many of these events were staffed with volunteers who had completed the Messengers4Change workshop and training on strategies for talking to and building relationships with high-risk youth and young adults.
Community members who attended the events shared positive feedback about their experiences. In the neighborhoods where the events were held, divisions between African Americans and Latinos were very apparent. During park events, however, families from different backgrounds interacted easily with one another. Latino and African American children began to build friendships. Adults who saw these interactions became more open to the idea of coming together.
The community engagement coordinator often discussed the project with leaders of the faith community, especially after a homicide or shooting affected a nearby neighborhood. Clergy members sometimes invited their congregations to project events. Partnering with prominent individuals in the faith community was a logical choice because faith leaders naturally supported the message of non-violence. Once Messengers4Change started working with closely with individuals of faith community, engaging with authority figures became much easier. Faith leaders helped to spread the word about the mission of Messengers4Change.
To augment its community events, Messengers4Change also launched a public education campaign to educate residents about the cost of violence and to provide alternatives to violence. Billboards, bus advertisements, and flyers were distributed around neighborhoods that experienced shootings in an attempt to change community attitudes and norms about violence. In 2012, Messengers4Change partnered with the Urban Peace movement to install billboards featuring young people holding pictures of loved ones they lost to gun violence. All campaign materials included the Messengers4Change logo and a message reading: “Stop the killings, start the healing.”
The Oakland Unite violence prevention strategy also embraced strategies from the Boston Ceasefire (or focused deterrence) model. “Call-ins” were a collaborative effort between law enforcement (parole, probation, and police), social services, and community residents. During a call-in, young people known to be involved in violent group behavior were directed to appear at a meeting with no risk of being arrested. Law enforcement authorities informed the participants that if they continued to engage in violence, the full weight of the justice system would be used against them. Speakers from the community then told the participants how violence had affected their families and their neighborhoods. Service providers offered assistance including employment, substance abuse treatment, and housing support. The Ceasefire coordinator in Oakland worked closely with Oakland Unite to plan call-ins and to address the larger issue of how to reduce violence. According to some officials, this “carrot-and-stick” approach provided positive incentives for staying away from gun violence that were strengthened by the threat of enforcement for those who did not comply. Oakland Unite staff worked to maximize the “carrot” aspect with a state grant that supported more substantial client incentives (e.g. food, gift cards) and provided participants with additional stipends for engagement.
At first, participants in a call-in were invited to appear individually. In 2013, the Ceasefire program in Oakland altered its approach to include group call-ins. This presented some new challenges for the program in its efforts to ensure the safety of participants as they arrived and departed call-in meetings. The use of a neutral location and the visible presence of law enforcement helped to alleviate these concerns.
During the early part of 2012, the Ceasefire component experienced a number of difficulties with the schedule for call-ins, efforts to ensure the participation of those “called-in,” and an absence of shared goals among partnering agencies. In order for a call-in to be successful, an adequate notification system had to be in place, a list of invitees had to be compiled, and a process for following-up with individuals after the call-in needed to be established. Law enforcement partners were often unable to complete notifications in time and to perform adequate follow-up. By 2012, however, the Office of the Mayor was able to assume responsibility for the call-ins using funds from a new CalGRIP grant.
In October 2012, DHS resumed call-ins with members from two of the most active gangs in Oakland: the Money Team and the Case Boys (Drummond 2013). In that meeting, gang members were warned against further violence. Just three months later, however, four street killings within six hours prompted OPD to plan and execute the largest law enforcement action related to Oakland Ceasefire’s work at that time. In March 2013, a series of early morning raids involving hundreds of local police officers and FBI agents swept through an Oakland housing project in search of illegal weapons (Wang 2013). The raids resulted in the arrest of at least 18 suspects. Ceasefire call-ins were then put on hold in May 2013 due to abrupt leadership transitions within the police department. The team of Oakland Unite, community partners, and OPD attempted to move forward with call-ins, but coordination became difficult. While some of the new command staff understood Ceasefire’s mission, they did not have much experience in implementing it.
Department leaders decided that it would be best to use the summer to rebuild and improve the program to prepare for a successful relaunch in 2014. By the end of 2014, more than 100 people had been called in by the newly energized Ceasefire effort and Oakland was experiencing a decline in homicide rates. Compared with 2012, shootings in 2014 were down 15 percent and homicides dropped 30 percent (Payton 2014). City officials believed that the new incarnation of Ceasefire was more effective. All partners appeared to be in sync with one another.
Community violence indicators were reviewed in weekly meetings. The meetings helped stakeholders to understand how patterns of violence in different neighborhoods were often related. Representatives from Oakland Unite, Catholic Charities, Youth ALIVE!, Highland Hospital, Ceasefire, and Street Outreach were often involved in the meetings. In addition to providing a space for partners to collaborate, the weekly meetings allowed the Outreach team to examine whether or not recent shootings were gang-related. They learned that relatively few groups accounted for the majority of victims and suspects. At one point, groups that were primarily engaging in violence in East Oakland were also active throughout the city. Once these individuals were identified, Ceasefire hosted call-ins specifically targeting them. According to the City’s documentation, 80 percent of call-in participants expressed at least some interest in the services being offered and 68 percent of those followed through to initiate contact (Payton 2014).
TASK FORCES AND TEAMS
Coordination and collaboration were essential to the infrastructure of Oakland Unite. Community organizations, government agencies, and neighborhood residents worked within and across groups to form a strong network.
The network of community-based partners was a cornerstone of the city’s violence prevention efforts and a key component of the crisis response strategy. Different agencies came together to create this network, each offering a range of resources. One example of these partnerships was the way Catholic Charities collaborated with Youth ALIVE! in the crisis response arena. Catholic Charities provided extra funding to address client issues when Youth ALIVE! was not equipped to handle them. They provided relocation money for families at high-risk for retaliatory violence and partnered with the Khadafy Washington Project to provide mental health services to families of homicide victims, often paid for by the Victims of Crime office.
The staff of Youth ALIVE! and Catholic Charities also communicated closely with the Street Outreach teams. Typically, someone on the Street Outreach team had enough of a relationship with a victim’s family to help DHS understand if there was the potential for retaliatory violence. The collaboration between street outreach and the crisis response organizations was one of Oakland’s most powerful strategies to address violence.
The Oakland Gang Prevention Task Force
The Oakland Gang Prevention Task Force, which included representatives from city government, law enforcement, schools, and criminal justice, met monthly to share information on gang trends, to coordinate prevention and intervention efforts, and to address policy issues related to gang violence. The task force had a community engagement council—the Oakland Gang Prevention Council—that met regularly to increase cross-agency coordination around gang problems in schools. One of the strengths of these partnerships was that many shared DHS contracts, allowing for consistency among objectives and benchmarks, and enabling data sharing between probation and the Oakland school district.
The Juvenile Justice Transition Team
The Juvenile Justice Transition Team involved another set of partnerships in Oakland that focused on reentry issues surrounding high-risk youth exiting the Juvenile Justice Center. The team sought rapid reenrollment in school or job training for youth, and attempted to ensure that all youth had access to any necessary health and behavioral services.
OAKLAND POLICE DEPARTMENT
OPD remained an important partner in Oakland’s violence prevention strategy, despite a great deal of turmoil. Between May 2013 and May 2014, the Department experienced a number of leadership changes and four different people held the title of Chief. Two years later, in fact, the department would go through another period of tumult with the appointments of three different chiefs in just nine days (Queally 2016). Oakland Unite often had to explain sudden leadership changes to community members in order to sustain their connection to the department and to the larger initiative.
The police department had other challenges involving staffing levels. In 2010, Oakland had a police force with approximately 16.5 officers per 1,000 residents, making it one of the smallest forces among major American cities (FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program 2010). Another 80 officers were later cut from the service due to budget constraints and attrition (Bulwa 2012). As of March 2013, the 396,000 Oakland residents were served by just 611 officers, down from 776 in July 2010 (Kuruvila 2013). The reduced size of the force likely contributed to the drop in solved homicides—from 44 percent in 2009 to 29 percent in 2011-12 (Chaflin and McCrary 2012).
Despite multiple leadership transitions and staffing shortages within the police department, the activities and operations of Oakland Unite did not experience major disruptions. City officials believed that this was due in large part to the work of the violence prevention network coordinator, who had worked in Oakland with this population for two decades. As turnover occurred within OPD, Oakland Unite staff worked quickly to establish relationships with the new staff, and the program reported that OPD maintained its support for the model throughout the grant period.
Officials in the Oakland Police Department embraced the public health model, understanding that reductions in violence were due to the joint efforts of enforcement and community support, and that one could not be successful without the other. In earlier years, Oakland’s city government and police department did not have strategies in place to respond compassionately to tragedies in the community because most of their protocols emphasized enforcement. Oakland Unite allowed the city to develop the relationships needed to connect Street Outreach teams with the community. Responding quickly and in a coordinated fashion was most successful when strong partnerships existed across departments and organizations.
The Street Outreach team utilized many community partnerships to carry out its work. The violence interrupters relied on churches to provide a safe space to mediate conflicts and to help the community to recover from violent incidents. Outreach workers also used church spaces to remind individuals of pro-social alternatives to their lifestyle, as many had grown up in the church but later became involved in violence. Church staff even provided counseling for outreach workers who needed an outlet to discuss the difficult situations they encountered.
While few would dispute the fact that Ceasefire initiatives required a true collaborative effort to achieve success, not all partners felt equally represented in the implementation of the Oakland initiative. Some perceived a power imbalance between Ceasefire partners and the individuals doing the outreach work. Perhaps because of their backgrounds, some outreach workers did not feel as though they were recognized or valued for the work that they performed. It was critical to the success of the initiative that all partners felt acknowledged for the contributions they made, and not marginalized by an unequal power dynamic.
Possible Effects on Crime
Even when they are designed and managed well, initiatives like Oakland Unite take time to affect violent crime problems. In the first year of the initiative, the murder rate in Oakland actually increased 40 percent (City of Oakland Weekly Crime Report 2012). The robbery rate was one crime for every 91 residents, “the highest of any major American city since 2000” and “36 percent higher than the second-ranked city, Cleveland” (Huffpost San Francisco 2013; Artz 2013). By 2013, however, overall crime in Oakland began to drop and even homicides declined (City of Oakland Weekly Crime Report 2013). In May 2013, OPD’s Chief Whent attributed the reductions to the re-launching of Ceasefire call-ins (Stupi 2013). While the Chief’s causal attribution was aspirational at best, it reflected the City’s growing confidence in its violence reduction initiatives.
Oakland Unite focused on three crime types: shootings, homicides, and attempted homicides. The effort concentrated on five Hot Spots in the city, including two in the west area of Oakland (McClymonds and Lowell/Acorn) and three in the central/east area (Havenscourt, Elmhurst, and Parker). Oakland Unite partners used the Hot Spot boundaries to focus the efforts of outreach workers as well, directing them to spend at least 75 percent of their time and efforts on those areas.
Using data from the Oakland Police Department, the analysis shows that shootings declined in targeted Hot Spot areas after the 2011 launch of Oakland Unite, but the size of the decline generally mirrored the change in non-target areas. When viewed in terms of percentage change from 2005, the drop in shootings after 2012 is clear. Shootings reached a level in 2012 that was triple that of 2005 (307% increase), and the subsequent decline returned shootings to 168 percent of their 2005 level. Shootings in areas that were not the focus of Oakland Unite, however, grew to 244 percent of their 2005 level and then dropped to 146 percent by 2014.
Homicides displayed the same pattern. When viewed in isolation, the data could be interpreted to suggest that Oakland Unite had an effect on murders. The number of homicides in Hot Spot areas began to decline a year after the launch of the initiative and the 2014 level (18 deaths) was lower than any year since 2005. On the other hand, the number of homicides in non-Hot Spot areas also dropped sharply after 2012. In percentage terms relative to 2005, the overall change in homicides by 2014 did not differ greatly in areas that were and were not affected by Oakland Unite (60% and 53% of their 2005 levels, respectively).
Changes in attempted homicides between 2005 and 2014 were similar to the pattern exhibited by shootings and homicides. The number of attempted homicides grew sharply from 2010 to 2011, then returned to 2005 levels.
When viewed in terms of percentage change from 2005, the patterns in Hot Spot and non-Hot Spot areas were quiet similar. Taken together, the data demonstrate that violence dropped significantly in the years following the implementation of Oakland Unite, but it is not possible to attribute these changes to the initiative itself.
An evaluation of the program conducted by Oakland’s own Resource Development Associates (2014), on the other hand, was more optimistic. That study tracked the justice involvement of more than 7,000 Oakland Unite clients over an eight year period to assess the amount of offending activity at an individual level both before and after each person’s contact with the program. The analysis suggested that program clients were substantially less likely to be either arrested or convicted for new offenses in the two years following their involvement with Oakland Unite.
The authors of the study admitted, however, that their analysis was unable to show causation. The data did not prove the program itself produced these effects. By the time a young person has sufficient contact with the justice system to warrant formal intervention of some kind, he or she is less likely to offend in the future simply due to the advance of maturity and a statistical effect known as the “selection-regression artifact” (Maltz et al. 1980). Furthermore, the study tracked pre-program offending more than twice as long as post-program offending, which would account for much of the difference. Even with these caveats, however, the findings were somewhat encouraging. The researchers noted, for example, that the size of the declines before and after Oakland Unite grew between the first and fourth cohorts, suggesting that the program may have been becoming more effective.
The framework for Oakland’s comprehensive violence prevention strategy was in place for less than five years. This timeframe afforded Oakland Unite staff the opportunity to take stock of programs and services that would benefit from additional resources or retooling. Overall, the city was satisfied with the direction of the strategy and was focusing on sustaining positive effects and building on its success. The city identified the following areas to develop further: expanding employment opportunities for Street Outreach and Ceasefire clients, providing additional training on evidence-based behavior change practices and trauma-informed care practices for case managers and street outreach workers, expanding mental health support for clients, and maintaining the consistency of existing efforts—namely call-ins, community engagement and street outreach.
Members of the street outreach team expressed a desire to raise awareness around their work—specifically clarifying that they work in targeted areas of the city with a primary focus on reducing shootings and homicides. During the grant period, there was a wide-spread misunderstanding that their efforts were also targeting other forms of violence across the city, which may have led residents to incorrectly conclude that street outreach did not work or that Measure Y was a failure. For any future efforts, City officials acknowledged that effective violence reduction strategies will need to incorporate effective communication components.
One of the fundamental goals of Oakland Unite was shifting cultural norms around violence, but everyone knew that this would not be easy. As the violence prevention coordinator stated, it is difficult to change the notion deeply embedded in our culture that for any serious argument to be resolved, “someone has to get shot” (Payton 2015). As long as this mindset persists, a neighborhood is always one disagreement away from a spike in violence. Despite the many positive achievements that took place in Oakland over the OJJDP grant period, serious issues remained and there were many areas where Oakland needed to continue working on its anti-violence message.
Between 2010 and 2014, Oakland received federal funds to keep and maintain the street outreach and the community engagement coordinator positions. Two other federal grants helped to support the law enforcement component and the project manager position for Ceasefire. Oakland wisely used its federal and state funds to leverage existing resources and to support violence reduction efforts already underway. The City also applied for and received funding to extend CBVP funding for an additional two years, through 2017. In addition, as Measure Y was scheduled to sunset in 2014, the City worked to pass Measure Z, a parcel tax that followed Measure Y and that was approved by 77 percent of voters in December 2014. This secured another 10 years of funding devoted, in part, to violence prevention.
City officials were also looking to secure resources from private companies and large agencies with a stake in Oakland, including Amazon, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), Caltrans, Clorox, the Oakland International Airport, Target, and United Parcel Service. Because of the short-term nature of grants and grant-funded positions, the City often found itself at the mercy of funding cycles that shifted priorities from year to year. Just as one violence prevention strategy got off the ground and began to gain momentum, the philosophical or political winds would change and funders would begin to advocate yet another new approach. Establishing support from corporate partners would help to stabilize violence prevention projects and to sustain their momentum.
Oakland was largely successful in its use of OJJDP funds to “plug missing holes” in its existing comprehensive violence reduction strategy that was largely based on the Ceasefire and Cure Violence models. As one city official stated, “Oakland exemplified the importance of running multiple campaigns against gun violence. Every strategy had its place within a panorama of necessary interventions.” The efforts in Oakland enjoyed strong support from local government, community organizations, and the faith-based sector. While the initiative encountered its share of obstacles, the City was confident that any issues could be resolved.
Unfortunately, available data about violent crime trends in the intervention areas failed to demonstrate the effect of the initiative. When compared with areas outside the Hot Spot intervention zones, violent crimes in the neighborhoods served by Oakland Unite did not decline in a way that would suggest the effort had a significant effect on overall public safety. It is possible that individual participants were affected by the initiative in a way that influenced their behavior and that reduced their involvement in violence, but the law enforcement information available to the research team was not detailed enough to detect such effects.
Tomberg, Kathleen A. and Jeffrey A. Butts (2016). Street by Street: Cross-Site Evaluation of the OJJDP Community-Based Violence Prevention Demonstration Program. New York, NY: Research and Evaluation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.