A Bay Area Journalist's First-Hand Account Of How Mayor Jerry Brown Screwed Over Oakland On His Way To Sacramento



J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Oakland Unwrapped Column
UrbanView Newspaper
August 14, 2002

A rising murder rate in Oakland. The Mayor of the city has a plan for a solution–a special tax to hire 100 new police officers–but he waits until the last possible moment to present it to the City Council. Citizens are given an opportunity to comment on the plan to the Council, but are limited to presentations of one limit. We are told there will be plenty of time to debate the Mayor’s proposal before it comes to a public vote in the November elections. At that point, however, it will be a take-it-or-leave it proposition, with no alternatives. Citizens can choose the Mayor’s plan for more police, or we can choose more murders.

Any wonder, then, that during the debate before City Council, there was no time to discuss the most obvious and most important question: what is causing Oakland’s rising murder rate?

This is more than just an exercise in rhetoric. An increased police presence could lower Oakland’s murder rate, could have no effect at all, or, in some circumstances, could actually make it worse in the short run. It all depends on why people are getting murdered, and what jobs the police are given to do when they get out on the street.


If shop owners or pedestrians are being robbed and then murdered along, say, Foothill or Telegraph, then increasing police foot patrols along those streets will certainly help. Muggers and armed robbers are less likely to strike an area if they think a police officer is likely to come strolling by.

On the other hand, unless you think that a police officer is going to be able to squat down in every bedroom or kitchen where an argument is taking place, an increased police presence is likely to have little or no effect on murders resulting from domestic violence.

And what about the instances where increased police activity might actually exacerbate the murder rate in the short run? There’s a danger of this occurring when the murders are primarily the result of street wars over drug turf.

My non-professional theory: a good deal of the so-called "senseless" assassination-type, drive-by street shootings we’ve been seeing in Oakland often comes with the struggle to control the drug traffic in a particular neighborhood. When one drug lord controls distribution in a community, deciding who gets the franchise to deal on any particular corner, you can often get periods when there are not so many bullets flying in our streets. And that can mean a period of relative calm for the citizens living in that neighborhood. Understand me good, on this, because I’m stressing the word "relative." People are still being robbed and homes and cars and businesses are being burglarized as druggies try to support their habits. But the killings subside.

That relative calm can be broken in several ways, one of which is when law enforcement does its job properly and arrests the top drug dealers and their lieutenants (as they did with Oakland’s Felix Mitchell gang several years ago). One of the unintended consequences of such big busts is that low-level drug dealers and wannabe drug lords are left on the street, fighting for control of every corner, with a vacuum at the top and nobody to lay out turf and enforce it. That’s where you get a lot of these drug wars, with back-and-forth drive-by murders, as small-time dealers fight over control, and that sends the murder rate soaring. Is that what is going on in Oakland right now? I don’t know. But I think we should find out, because it affects how we craft a solution.

If you think I’m arguing that Oakland police shouldn’t go after the big drug lords and break up the drug gangs, you’re mistaken.

I’m only saying that in the short run, actions such as the hiring of a hundred more police officers in Oakland may have slightly different consequences than what we are being led to expect. And the time to talk about such things is before we vote on the Mayor’s tax proposal, not afterwards.

Voting is like the sailor urinating off the side of the boat. Best to check the direction of the wind, first, lest things come back on you.