The City of Oakland did a good thing on June 20, 2017. After a long process and much soul searching, the Oakland City Council voted to create a Department of Violence Prevention (DVP), with a Chief of Violence Prevention to work directly with victims of violent crime -- and those who are most likely to be future victims or perpetrators of violent crime – by pursuing a public health approach to dramatically reduce violent crime and end the cycle of trauma in impacted communities.
Public safety is consistently cited as the most important issue confronting Oakland, so import that the Chief of Police (OPD) and the Chief of Fire (OFD) report directly to the City Administration. The DVP will now join OPD and OFD at that level within the municipal structure.
The Decision to Create a DVP Did Not Come Lightly or in Haste
Every month Oakland can expect to lose on average seven members of the community to homicide, many more will be impacted by nonfatal gun violence, dozens more will experience domestic violence and an alarming number of youth will be kidnapped and raped as victims of commercial sex trafficking. This is despite support by Oaklanders since 2004 directing hundreds of millions of dollars into violence prevention and community policing programs to make Oakland safe.
There has been talk about the need to do more. During January – June community members and stakeholders met to discuss raising violence prevention as a priority. In April Councilmembers Lynette McElhaney -- whose grandson was gunned down in Oakland in 2015 -- and Larry Reid introduced a proposal to create a DVP. Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan joined as a co-sponsor. The proposal wound its way through various committees and was debated at several council meeting, including one when the DVP was discussed at 1:30 am. At a meeting in early June, some councilmembers proposed to study the matter further by creating a 'Blue-Ribbon Commission'.
The discussion on June 20th reflected public commentary throughout this process. Person after person came to the microphone to talk about loved ones killed on the streets of Oakland, horrific experiences with domestic violence and human trafficking in this city. Some talked about multiple violent deaths in their families -- about the deaths of babies, an 8-year-old, teenagers, young fathers. Almost all of those deaths were from communities of color where boys and men of color are 62 times more likely to be murdered than their white counterparts, according to the DVP Agenda Report of 4/27/17.
Many groups which work daily to prevent violence stepped forward to advocate for a DVP. Clergy, social service providers, activists and parents spoke. A young woman who was a rape baby told her story. She said during the time she spoke, 20 people were being victimized by domestic violence. One woman talked about the murder of a member of the LGBT community mere blocks from City Hall. Another talked about a murder in the parking lot of his local church. A long-time Oakland coach told about burying too many of his young players. He was far from the only one who spoke about attending funeral after funeral of young people in Oakland.
Many talked about making a better world for our children, working to let them know they matter, investing in them. Some expressed doubt that a department is the way. Others said we cannot wait for a 'Blue-Ribbon Commission' and they could not believe they had to beg the Council to vote yes on a DVP. Another said living in Oakland is living in a war zone that has taken parts of his soul, that something has to be done now.
Others talked about the importance of building community and the proven effectiveness of prevention; the connection between illiteracy and those who end up in prison; giving our young people jobs, community centers, something to do, opportunity, hope. Another said our lives matter – we need support, funding and policies to prevent violence.
They implored councilmembers to be champions for the city – like the Golden State Warriors. “Do your job.” “Use your power to stop building prisons and graves and start building souls.” One woman called upon the city council to rise above the doubt and to look beyond what is, to act for what is possible.
Then They Voted
Then the council voted to prioritize violence prevention by creating a DVP: 6 yes, 1 no, 1 member was absent. The Oakland City Council and the people of Oakland did a good thing. They honored lost and traumatized lives and took a significant step in the healing of this community.