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Oakland Invests Big In Violence Prevention Department

The city’s Department of Violence Prevention will receive $17 million across the next two years in an effort to combat steeply rising rates of homicides and violent crimes. But making significant changes will take time.

(TNS) — A small Oakland, Calif., department that until recently had few resources is now central to the city's effort to fight a resurgent homicide rate and reduce other violent crimes.

Oakland created the Department of Violence Prevention in 2017, but the department lacked substantial funding and leadership. In 2019, the city hired a respected anti-violence expert to head the agency, but it wasn't until June that officials directed significant resources to it.

That happened when the City Council rebuffed Mayor Libby Schaaf, directing more than $17 million away from her proposed police budget and into the fledgling department's coffers. Now the agency is likely to gain more attention, along with pressure to show results in a city that's seen a nearly 80 percent increase in homicides this year over 2020.

Department chief Guillermo Cespedes said the city has no choice — it must address gun violence, and the different departments must work together to make it happen. And he has a vision, one rooted in treating gun violence as a public health emergency.

"Homicide reduction, it's something the city of Oakland has to be successful at," Cespedes told council members at a committee meeting Tuesday. "That is not just the job of the Department of Violence Prevention, it's the job of the entire city."

Over the next year, Cespedes plans to introduce new initiatives intended to stop violence before it starts. The department's goal is to be "fully embedded in neighborhoods" disproportionately impacted by gun violence.

Key elements of the plan include doubling the number of violence interrupters working for the department through nonprofit agencies to 20, increasing support for homicide victims' families, and adding staff for crime scene response.

Violence interrupters are well-connected residents who live in neighborhoods impacted by crime and who seek to serve as mediators during conflicts. They have "community credibility," Cespedes said, that allows them to intervene after a violent crime occurs to deter retaliation.

Schaaf and Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong have criticized council members who initiated the shift in funding priorities, saying it will result in the loss of 50 open police officer positions and reduce the number of police academies from six to four.
Armstrong said last month that the city will become less safe without more police resources and that it will take time for the violence prevention department to bolster its programs.

"What happens in the meantime?" Armstrong asked. "Less resources from the police and no resources currently on the ground from the Department of Violence Prevention. That's what really concerns me. There is a gap in services on both sides, and we have nothing to fill that gap."

Oakland had recorded 72 homicides this year as of Thursday, compared with 40 during the same period last year. Oakland had 75 killings in all of 2019 and 102 in 2020. The last time Oakland had more than 100 killings in a year was 2012.

The council members who pushed to fund the violence prevention department agreed that its impacts will take time — but they said additional police funding isn't the answer.

"Things are not going to change overnight," Council Member Carroll Fife said at Tuesday's committee meeting. "It does the department a disservice if we expect them to change the world with $7 million as it pertains to some of the issues that we face when there are other organizations who haven't been able to do that with a lot more investment."

The department will receive the $17 million in installments: about $7 million in the first year of the budget, which has just begun, and about $10 million in the second year. The department also receives $8.4 million per year in funding from Measure Z, which will be used to maintain current contracts.

The linchpin of the department's effort to prevent violence is building a network of people who can respond directly to individuals and families of victims.

Though not officially a violence interrupter for the city of Oakland, Antoine Towers knows what the job entails. He is the chairperson of the Oakland Violence Prevention Coalition, which was formed in 2015 to urge the city to create Cespedes' department. Towers and nearly 30 others who were part of his coalition have all lost a loved one to gun violence.

Towers works as an unofficial violence interrupter in West Oakland. He is not contracted by the city but works as an adviser to the Department of Violence Prevention.

On a recent afternoon, Towers recalled his work to dissuade a father from retaliating after his wife was shot and killed in Oakland while shielding their children from gunfire. Instead, he focused on offering the father support to pay for funeral costs, bringing food for the family and offering therapy services.

"Interrupters — you don't know they are there," Towers said. "Interrupters are people that are connected in the community, respected to where if certain things are going on, they can come and mediate in between the two to try to resolve it before it goes any further."

Training for violence interrupters will focus on de-escalation tactics, rumor control, peacemaking and coordinating with law enforcement without jeopardizing their credibility, Cespedes said. The city will contract with nonprofits to provide the services.

Violence interrupters now toil in cities across the world, including Chicago, Los Angeles and Richmond in the Bay Area, he added.

Oakland police take part in a program called Ceasefire, which focuses on gang and group violence by directly communicating with those most prone to gun violence and offering alternatives to crime such as education and job programs. The program works in partnership with Cespedes' department. But Ceasefire has gone from having 30 officers to 18 because of attrition, according to the Police Department.

Research shows that violence interruption, life coaching and connecting people with resources can work. A UC Berkeley study examining Advance Peace, a gun violence reduction program, found that after the program was implemented in Stockton for two years, from October 2018 to September 2020, the city saw a 21 percent reduction in gun homicides and assaults compared with the average rate dating to 2015. The same program in Sacramento reduced gun homicides and assaults by 22 percent.

Advance Peace enrolls people who are prone to gun violence into a fellowship that focuses on employment, job training and mentoring, mental and physical health, and financial management. Each participant earns $1,000 a month during the 18- to 24-month fellowship.

Cespedes said the pandemic only made violence worse as people struggle with economic uncertainty and the impact of a virus that disproportionately harmed Black and brown communities. Other criminologists agree and say the rise in homicides can be attributed at least in part to the pandemic. The pandemic also hampered the department's existing efforts as it kept outreach workers, violence interrupters and life coaches out of communities for an extended time.

President Biden introduced a comprehensive strategy to prevent gun crimes on June 23. His plan emphasized the importance of community violence interventions because they "leverage trusted messengers who work directly with individuals most likely to commit gun violence, intervene in conflicts, and connect people to social, health and wellness, and economic services," according to a fact sheet.

The violence prevention department has several other initiatives in the works, focusing on parts of town and groups hardest hit by violent crime. Most of the programs are new, while others, including the violence interrupters, are expanded.

Cespedes plans to start 10 teams of community ambassadors citywide, made up of about six people each, to support merchants and residents by providing food donations and linking them to city services. The teams, which will look different in every community based on the demographics of the neighborhoods, will be responsible for developing relationships with residents.

Oakland will begin a series of Town Nights in parks and recreation centers in the city's most crime-affected neighborhoods, modeled after similar programs Cespedes started in Los Angeles. His department plans to invest about 25 percent of its budget on gender-based violence, which includes domestic violence, sexual assault and sexual exploitation.

"Gender-based violence in Oakland is a huge issue," said Sarai Crain, the deputy chief of violence prevention. "It is as big of a pandemic as gun violence, it just doesn't get the same kind of attention. Sexual exploitation in Oakland is rampant."

Cespedes said he also plans to focus on gang and group violence by connecting youths and adults to life coaches, job training and educational opportunities.

Key to such programs are people such as Michael Muscadine, who left behind troubles as a young person to become the co-founder of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, which is contracted by Cespedes to provide life coaching and community healing.

A fifth-generation Oaklander, Muscadine said his work is focused on people ages 13 to 65 who live in his neighborhood and the surrounding area.

He tries to get "people out of their comfort zone and explore," whether by taking them to Lake Tahoe to see snow for the first time or by hiking the redwoods in Oakland — an invaluable experience, Muscadine said, that exposes people to the world outside their neighborhoods.

Supporters of the new efforts believe that taking a more holistic approach to public safety will benefit neighborhoods grappling with traumatic levels of crime and poverty.

"I have really been trying to lift up this idea of a comprehensive community safety infrastructure," said Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who spearheaded the efforts to amend the mayor's proposed budget to allow for the department's extra funding.

In January, a man was injured in a shooting in Oakland's San Antonio neighborhood. Violence interrupters, residents and some members of Cespedes' department held a prayer circle outside the man's house to let the family members know they had support.

Bas was there.

"People may be used to thinking about safety as traditional policing," she said. "What is really important about the conversation happening in Oakland and other parts of the country is that as we look at violence ... we see that we have to have a lot of different strategies that are holistic and integrated to create safety and security with our communities."

(c)2021 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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