100 Blocks, Violence Prevention, and the Media, What Do We Know?

I started out to write a blog about the Mayor’s 100 Blocks Initiative last week after attending a presentation by Reygan Harmon, the mayor’s public safety aide, at the Allen Temple Baptist Church. I thought the story was how welcomed this initiative was in a neighborhood severely impacted by gun violence.

Now the issue seems to be, the press strategy the mayor’s office used and why that has fueled the media onslaught against it. If you don’t explain something well or completely the first time, the press will explain it their way even if it’s completely off the mark.

First off, every plan has flaws, but if that plan is not etched in stone (and this one has not been legislated) that means it can be adapted to current conditions either by subtly tweaking it or by broadly revamping it so long as the underlying theory works.

What is the underlying theory of the 100 Blocks Initiative? It is that 1) most of the violence that happens in this city usually happens in certain neighborhoods, 2) most of the resulting death and disability usually happens to certain groups of people, and 3) there are limited resources to stem this violence.

But beyond that, there is a broader question we as a community have to answer. It is-if you are not part of the group or neighborhood most impacted-do you care if we focus our already existing but limited resources- on that problem? Well, do you?

I live in a “safe” neighborhood. I leave my front door open during the day when it is warm and I don’t fear going for a walk-day or night. Yes, it’s true that there’s been a spate of burglaries on my street. I now take precautions when I leave my house, and I try to be aware of my surroundings when I walk. Of course, I know a few people who have been robbed. But do I know many people who have been murdered? Only a couple, and none of them look like me. But my children do look like those folks so I am deeply affected by that.

If you live in a neighborhood which never expected to be impacted by crime, much less violence-when I say violence I am defining it as death or disability, not intimidation-you might be excused for being shocked when any kind of crime touches you. After all, having someone come into your house and take your belongings is a violation of your space and almost, of your person, almost.

But, we as Oaklanders have learned to tolerate the fact that many neighborhoods in our community are regularly violated and that early death is a part of their everyday lives. During the town halls following the mayoral election we said that it was not okay. We said-stop the violence! At a minimum, we believed it harmed our image and our ability to bring in capital. At our most generous, we believed that the destruction was terribly wrong.

Since then two things happened that made us clamor for quick solutions. On the one hand, 3 little children were murdered; on the other property crime and physical intimidation have grown while our police force has shrunk.

At that point, some people who knew very little about how the city is run and even less about the 100 Block Initiative, assumed that the people in the neighborhoods most impacted by violence were getting the services that they, in the safer neighborhoods, were beginning to need.

How did the mayor’s administration approach this concern? Well, I have to say, it fumbled it. It didn’t address it on a visceral level but did shift the Problem Solving Officers back to their original beats. But that was the way the PSO’s were always supposed to be used, deployed where and when needed.

Mayor Quan and her staff have been offering to make presentations on the 100 Block Initiative but that has only reached a small audience. Does any of this remind you of how the Obama administration rolled out their ground breaking healthcare plan?

The mayor and the administration (including OPD and Ms. Santana’s office) could have said, “Look folks, it’s obvious, the same police beats-neighborhoods-have experienced gun violence at a high level for many years. And, we have limited resources to impact them so we are picking the worst ones first,” and simply added “We have lots of already funded law enforcement agencies (federal, state and county) that are working these same neighborhoods because of the ongoing violence, so we’re going to coordinate with them. And, we’ll focus our existing social services in those neighborhoods, and we’ll make sure that our public works department does their job in the areas where dumping is most likely to occur,” because that’s it in a nutshell.

How did the 100 Blocks nomenclature come about? I don’t know but even the Urban Strategies Council study says that about 20% of our extreme gun violence occurs in those blocks and that the blocks surrounding them encompasses at least 50% of it. The USC study uses slightly older data so it may be that it has moved around a bit since then or become more concentrated.

Interestingly, the City had contracted with USC to map out the areas of the police beats with the most stressors, stressors that usually predict violence, when it began to design the Initiative [Creating Promise Neighborhoods Planning Group, March, 2010].

I also know that Chief Batts quit the week that he and Mayor Quan were to unveil the strategy so he clearly had something to do with it [as an aside, if you want to see a good PR strategy, watch Anthony Batts, he’s a master at that, policing- not so much]. I think 100 blocks or 500 hundred, which may have been a better number, sounds like a lot to many of us, so we didn’t really think about it too much.

But we know it only takes a few very destructive people in a small area to create havoc, and the violence is often centered in a few blocks around those dangerous people who actually do the shooting. Those blocks and neighborhoods can rotate, but they remain fairly constant. It’s common sense. Certain parts of West Oakland, a few areas in central Oakland and whole swathes of East Oakland are affected.

But not everyone within those areas, not even the poorest or most chaotic of those blocks, is a violent criminal, far from it. So, maybe the title should be “the 100 blocks where most of the shooting starts even though it shifts between them or the shooting itself takes place somewhere else.” I don’t know-do you like that title, catchey, huh?

So now back to the bottom line of this initiative, put together by the mayor’s staff, the police department, and other agencies and fueled by the demands of residents-it took a pragmatic approach using existing resources and up-to-date data from various intelligence sources; and focused a myriad of services and law enforcement on an area that has always been acknowledged as the most dangerous neighborhoods-beats, blocks, whatever- in the city.

Is it working yet? Don’t know, is it too soon to tell, common sense tells me it is, and neither stats from either the USC or the mayor’s office will convince me that we know much yet. Having heard Reygan Harmon’s presentation 3 times, it seems inherently sensible, multi-pronged, and adaptable to most neighborhoods and conditions, tweakable by new data and ideas, just another way to say it is a common-sense, coordinated, “not rocket science,” (Reygan Harmon quote) approach to an obvious, well-known, decades-old problem.

The Reverend J. Alfred Smith Jr. at his community forum stated, “if a plan has shortcomings…it’s our job to work on it..but we don’t stop,“ and that, “This is a plan I support unequivocally.”

I have a friend who lives in Deep East who called me and said that he was worried that the mayor’s awkward press on this might stymie a strategy that has already made a difference in his neighborhood. He is afraid that city politics might kill what his neighbors need. I hope not.

OPD Needs Real Civilian Oversight–We Need a Police Commission

A coalition of folks are putting together this proposal and asking the City to lend a hand and vote to put this charter change on the ballot for November. The thinking is that now is the time-the threat of a federal takeover is breathing down our collective neck. A takeover would cost us additional funds and take at least 50% of our city budget out of our hands while a Police Commission could be a game changer, offering an opportunity for the community to finally exercise some control over this costly department.

[We will forward the names of supporters and coalition members soon.]

OAKLAND NEEDS A POLICE COMMISSION-Tell your Council Member Now!

Oakland is ten years into a Negotiated Settlement Agreement over police reforms meant to be concluded in five years. The delay in compliance threatens to place the Oakland Police Department into Federal receivership. This will be the first time in U.S. history that any police department has been taken over by the Feds.

The conclusion is inescapable:  the City lacks adequate oversight of its police department. In fact, It is the lack of robust oversight  which gave rise to the serious police misconduct that resulted in the criminal trials of the infamous ‘Riders’ and  the subsequent multi-million dollar class action civil law suit that generated the NSA.  Already cash strapped, Oakland has paid over $58 million in civil law suits in the past ten years – more than San Francisco and San Jose, combined – and millions more in Federal monitoring fees and plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees.

The authority to oversee and impose discipline on the Police Department which the Charter confers to the City Manager (Administrator) is impractical and insufficient. The City Administrator supervises every department head in the City and cannot closely monitor and audit the Police Department effectively. There have been no fewer than five City Administrators during the course of the NSA, yet OPD is still not in compliance with its terms despite successive promises to the Federal Judge from each of them.

Oakland residents should be able to vote on establishing a Police Commission, appointed by the Mayor and the City Council whose mandate would be to oversee, monitor, audit  and influence policy and practices of the Oakland Police Department, won’t you  sign this petition!

If you agree that such a measure should appear on the November 2102 ballot, won’t you sign this petition? Go to http://www.ipetitions.com/widget/view/441808