After deadliest day of 2021, Oakland reels from gun violence – The Mercury News | #College. | #Students


OAKLAND — His mentors still cannot believe it and his mother cannot bring herself to talk about the stray bullet that killed 18-year-old Demetrius Fleming-Davis.

He had just helped prepare raised garden beds at the internship he worked on top of shifts at the Dollar Tree and between junior college classes. He discussed his weekend plans: turning over soil in his mother’s yard and hanging with friends to shop and search for the best taco.

Riding in the back of a friend’s truck, he wasn’t far from his childhood church when a bullet from nowhere came and killed him. Homicide detectives say Demetrius was simply in the wrong place.

His death on April 10 came on the 100th day of 2021. It was the deadliest day of the year, with three homicides. Oakland now has 44 homicides this year, a murder every three days. If the pace continues, Oakland will have a triple-digit homicide count for a second year in a row, after years of declines.

Police and activists blame two outgrowths of the pandemic — a surge in firearms on the streets, and a curtailment in violence prevention programs reliant on personal contact — for boosting the deadly totals. The situation has rekindled the debate over whether Oakland needs to find a more effective way to police its neighborhoods.

“We know it’s dangerous on the streets. Being a young Black man in America is dangerous period,” said Sequence Young, the Berkeley Youth Alternatives garden coordinator where Demetrius interned. “Usually when things like this happen, it’s a kid hanging with the wrong people or got caught up.”

“You don’t even have to be in the street these days,” she added. “You could just be passing through and get caught in the crossfire.”

Demetrius is among four teenagers killed, two of them juveniles. Most of the victims are Black or Latino men in their 20s or 30s, killed in shootings. Nearly two-thirds of the deaths have occurred in the flatlands of East Oakland, from 20th Avenue to the San Leandro border.

OAKLAND, CA – January 21: Officers investigate a quadruple shooting on 107th Avenue between E Street and Royal Ann Street in East Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. (Dylan Bouscher/Bay Area News Group) 

The bloodshed has been fueled by gang shootings, retaliation for other shootings or murders or robberies, and arguments that have turned deadly, police said. Shootings are so frequent in East Oakland, officials said, homes and cars have been riddled with bullets. Crews cleaning up trash find shell casings while sweeping streets.

At a shooting on Jan. 19, fifteen bullet holes were found in the front of the East Oakland home where 52-year-old Lashawn Buffin, a grandmother and family friend of Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, was shot and killed while sitting inside. She is not believed to have been the intended target.

The 44 homicides Oakland detectives have investigated as of Friday are up from 16 over the same period last year. Most of those crimes remain unsolved. By comparison, San Jose and San Francisco have each investigated 10 homicides, an uptick of one in the South Bay city and on track with what San Francisco saw compared to last year.

The high rate of killings in the first quarter of the year, usually a quieter period, worries longtime victim advocates like Marilyn Washington Harris, who lost her son to gun violence in 2000. She said she was exhausted Wednesday, after meeting with another mother who lost a son to gun violence.

“It’s mind-boggling. Nobody seems to know what to do,” she said. “Meanwhile families still go on losing loved ones.”

In Oakland, as COVID-19 numbers began to climb last spring, so too did the number of homicides. Police and community leaders attribute the violence in part to a proliferation in guns: So far in 2021, police have recovered 297 firearms, up from 271 at this time last year, according to the police department.

That’s not unique to Oakland. UC Davis researchers found that in 2020, an estimated 110,000 firearm purchases in California were linked to the pandemic.

And while Oakland is outpacing other Bay Area cities in homicides, cities across the United States including Cincinnati, Louisville, Philadelphia and Jacksonville have seen a rise in homicides or shootings since the pandemic hit.

In an interview, Chief Armstrong, who was sworn in in February, said ghost guns — firearms built from kits — are flooding the streets, and are hard to trace.

On top of the surge in guns, the pandemic, the chief said, has hurt the department’s Ceasefire program to reach and talk in person with gang members or people who police believe are committing the violent crimes fueling homicides and shootings. It’s also been hard for the city’s Department of Violence Prevention to meet with victim families to provide trauma support and intervene with friends of victims seeking revenge.

The police chief said criminals are taking advantage of a resource-strapped department. The Oakland Police Department has 711 sworn officers and is budgeted for 77 more. Armstrong said the messaging over defunding the police is something perpetrators have heard, and is a factor in rising crime, but did not provide evidence to support that.

Those who advocate for defunding the police push back strongly on the narrative that more police funding is needed to stop the killing.

Police don’t prevent violence but rather respond to it, they say, and more resources need to be directed to the services and programs that help stabilize people and keep them from grabbing their guns in the first place: from secure, affordable housing to access to good jobs to youth programming.

“When we talk about addressing the spike in violence, the data indicates strongly that we need to be investing in community-based programming: housing, people doing violence interruption — stabilizing people who are at the center (of the violence),” said James Burch, policy director for the Anti-Police Terror Project and The Justice Teams Network in Oakland. “That has the most significant impact.”

He points to a recent study done by AH Datalytics and released by the Anti-Police Terror Project showing that about 4.2% of 911 calls to police are for violent crime.

Burch and others believe that police are often being dispatched to do work that does not require armed intervention, from towing cars to more complicated cases, like handling a mental health crisis.

Too often, these types of interactions lead to more violence, advocates say, and the people most at risk — Black and Latino residents — are also the communities most impacted by the spikes in gun violence.

There is some movement toward a different approach.

Last summer, as demonstrators poured into city streets to protest violence against mostly Black and Latino residents by law enforcement and called on Oakland to defund police, the city created its Reimagine Public Safety task force, comprising residents, organizers and violence prevention experts to figure out what its law enforcement should look like and whether city funds should go toward violence prevention strategies instead of police.

The recommendations that were developed from the task force include building out a non-police alternative to mental health crisis calls, which the City Council has agreed to pilot, as well as investing in mental health and substance use services, and disbanding the police department’s homeless outreach unit in favor of increasing funding for non-police homeless outreach services.

But while police and their supporters have cautioned against taking away resources from the department, a more nuanced view has developed among those in the communities most affected.

Five members of the city’s task force wrote a letter in December noting that “more lives will be lost if police are removed without an alternative response being put in place that is guaranteed to work as good as or better than the current system,” and urging their 12 fellow task members to ensure that “police reductions will only be made when a suitable alternative is in place that is proven to offer an equivalent or better impact on public safety.”

The city will have a chance to look at where it puts its funding this spring, as the City Council prepares to negotiate and adopt a two-year city budget.

The stakes for finding the right solutions to keep people safe from violence are high.

As traumatized people absorb even more news of police killings of Black and Latino adults and children — of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago and 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Minnesota in the last month alone — gun violence continues to hit close to home.

Less than three hours after Fleming-Davis was killed last Saturday, a man was shot dead inside Booker’s Liquor Store, about two miles away. The man’s mother, who drove from Vallejo, paced in the cold behind the yellow police tape on 90th Avenue and Olive Street. Her yelps could be heard for blocks.

“Just tell him to walk out of the store,” she pleaded.

Her 25-year-old son, Dejoh Wood, was the third homicide of the day, the sixth in four days, and the 41st homicide victim of 2021.

Staff photographer Dylan Bouscher contributed to this story. 



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