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Rising Crime Rates Test Oakland’s Most Dedicated Residents

The city’s homicide rate was up 80 percent, car break-ins were up nearly 90 percent, vehicle thefts have doubled and reported assaults increased 40 percent as compared to pre-pandemic numbers in 2019.

When a car came to an abrupt stop in front of Ami as she was driving in the Oakland, Calif., hills one morning last month, her first thought was that the people in the car needed assistance.

Shortly after the car's doors opened, Ami realized she was the one who needed help.

Two people brandishing guns approached and told her to unlock her door. When she did, they immediately dragged her onto the street and fled with her car.

Ami said, mentally, she still hasn't recovered.

"I hate what they did to me. I hate what they've done to my psyche," said Ami, who asked that I only use her first name. "I love Oakland. I just hate that I'm just jumpy now in ways that I wasn't before. I worry now about crime more than I ever have."

For longtime Oaklanders like Ami, the recent rise in crime is uniquely disheartening. They've experienced the city's challenges and triumphs and love their community. They understand that knee-jerk, get-tough-on-crime reactions can be very harmful to marginalized communities.

But they also want to feel safe.

"What I've been telling everybody is that what's new now is how the crimes are happening in broad daylight," said Waheed Alsaidi, who runs the Montclair Auto Shop and has been a business owner in the Oakland area for two decades.

At his shop, Alsaidi sees the additional cars needing catalytic converter replacements, window repairs and various fixes after someone tried to steal them.

"We have to figure out why this violence, why these crimes are happening and address it. What's driving someone to commit a crime in the open, in such a bold way like we're seeing?" he said.

As the Chronicle recently reported, crime rates in the city are high, especially when compared to pre-pandemic 2019 numbers: As of July, the city's homicide count was up 80 percent, car break-ins were up almost 90 percent, vehicle thefts had doubled, reported assaults were up 40 percent and reported robberies were up 20 percent.

While crime has increased, the historically poor-performing Oakland Police Department — which even amid protests from anti-police-brutality groups has never been defunded and is seeing its funding grow in the city's latest two-year budget — solved a smaller percentage of homicides, robberies and aggravated assaults last year than it did in 2019, according to California Department of Justice data.

Ami said she worries about going on walks and being around large crowds. She thinks twice about her kids taking BART, when years ago, she didn't.

Ami's longtime friend and Oakland resident Laura, told me she avoids restaurants on streets with a high rate of car break-ins. After her car windows were smashed in front of her home, it's reasonable for her to take the precaution. Even in a seemingly safe environment like a grocery store, Laura now feels perpetually on edge and jumps at loud noises, fearing something horrible is about to happen.

"It isn't living my best life," said Laura, who like Ami, asked that her last name not be mentioned. "There's this existential dread. ... I don't like the feeling of looking for the worst in life."

The city's crime issue has others looking for the worst in people.

Nicole Lee, who heads up the youth-led racial justice organization Urban Peace Movement, told me about how some young Black members of the organization were recently passing out flyers for free wellness services. While they were putting flyers on a car, a man ran over and berated them.

"He thought they were trying to break his window or something," Lee said, adding that the experience was traumatizing for the youngsters.

Ami voted for District Attorney Pamela Price, and while Ami is frustrated, she isn't banging the drum for Price to be recalled. Laura says community-oriented policing models, in which officers work effectively with locals, can foster trust and cooperation, leading to more effective crime prevention. Alsaidi wants crime solutions to go beyond punishment and focus on prevention, rehabilitation and creating opportunities for those who have been marginalized.

"We need to make sure we aren't punishing everyone, and serious crimes have serious consequences," Ami said. "We can figure out how to have both."

Alsaidi said public-safety efforts should also include the city funding more job opportunities for young people.

" Oakland is a beautiful city and something is pushing some people to commit crimes. And it's a small number doing these things," he said. "We need more of the services that keep people from committing crimes in the first place. ... We can care about victims and the people committing crimes."

In today's hyper-politicized public safety discourse, this isn't an easy stance to take, especially as people who are supposed to care about the marginalized — like the Oakland NAACP — are advancing the fallacious theory that crime partly stems from liberal values and anti-police sentiment.

It takes no courage to return to the mass incarceration eras of the 1980s and 1990s. Advancing crime-fighting methods that achieve a fair balance between harshness and empathy in this chaotic moment? Now, that takes some serious fortitude.

Thankfully, plenty of thoughtful Oaklanders have it.

(c)2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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