OAKLAND (AP) — Staring at a colorful display of balloons, flowers and candles at a makeshift memorial in East Oakland, Todd Walker estimated he went to at least 50 of the funerals for this city’s 110 homicide victims in 2011.
He attended one more on Friday, this time for Oakland’s last homicide victim of the year, 5-year-old Gabriel Martinez, Jr., who was shot and killed near his father’s taco truck a week earlier.
“Safe streets should be the main priority of this city, period! There are no more excuses,” said Walker, a community activist who is often asked to attend services by the victims’ families, pointing to a large banner with Gabriel’s image at the memorial site that said “Alto a la violencia” — stop the violence in Spanish.
This rough-edged port city that struggles for a reprieve from the violence saw its homicide total hit triple digits last year for the fifth time in the past six years. There were 95 homicides in 2010, a five-year low that brought promise and some optimism.
But a number of the slayings in 2011 sparked community outrage and national attention. A man was shot in broad daylight in November near the Occupy Oakland encampment outside City Hall, and a beloved restaurant owner in East Oakland was fatally shot in April during an early morning attempted robbery.
Gabriel, known by his family as “Little Gabrielito,” was one of three little boys felled by bullets. Three-year-old Carlos “Carlito” Nava was gunned down while being pushed in a stroller by his mother in August.
Last month, Hiram Lawrence was taken off life support after being shot in the head while in his father’s arms during a rap video shooting; he died nearly three weeks shy of his second birthday.
“Ain’t no tomorrow for (Gabriel)! Ain’t no tomorrow for little Carlito down the street or baby Hiram! Do something for these kids who are alive so they can live to see tomorrow,” said Walker, also a well-respected area youth football coach. “How many more babies are going to have to be shot and killed?”
In addition to the spike in homicides, violent crime in Oakland increased by 6 percent in 2011. Property crimes also increased by 10 percent compared to 2010. The city’s first homicide this year occurred Wednesday when a man was shot and killed in East Oakland.
Last year was a tumultuous for Oakland in other ways, as well. Popular Police Chief Anthony Batts resigned in October, citing frustration over his department’s scant resources. That came before police dismantled two large Occupy Wall Street encampments and arrested hundreds during violent clashes with protesters that drew both worldwide attention and scrutiny.
Embattled Mayor Jean Quan, who faces two recall campaigns, has been criticized by residents and civic leaders for her handling of the Occupy protests.
And the killings of the three children in a four-month span have put a particularly harsh spotlight on crime in her city.
“They have struck a nerve and touched the city’s heart and reignited a lot of community action to seek justice,” Quan said. “These deaths involving children seemed to have broken the barrier in terms of folks communicating with the police and hopefully something positive will come out of it.”
Longtime Oakland Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente said a poor economy, gangs, drugs and robberies were the primary causes of homicides last year. He has grown increasingly frustrated as city leaders were at odds with each other last year over proposed gang injunctions, curfew and anti-loitering ordinances to help combat the crime.
Oakland’s crime rate runs counter to national trends: Preliminary FBI crime figures for the first half of 2011 show violent crime dropping across America — nationally, homicides dropped nearly 6 percent, robbery 8 percent and assaults 6 percent for the first half of last year.
Oakland’s homicide rate is twice that of neighboring San Francisco, which recorded 50 homicides both last year and in 2010. San Jose, the Bay Area’s most populous city, saw its 2011 homicide total rise to 41 — more than double the previous year’s, yet still far lower than Oakland’s.
David Kennedy, a criminologist, said Oakland’s homicide rate partly reflects the failure of city leaders to follow through on crime-fighting initiatives.
“They simply have the inability to stay focused and keep on track. The city gets easily distracted and can’t stay the course,” said Kennedy, who directs the Center on Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College in New York.
Kennedy, who created the Operation Ceasefire initiative that helped lower crime in several major cities, said Oakland has not shown enough commitment to keeping residents safe.
“When a city has had consistently high levels of violence such as Oakland and given that there are now proved approaches to reducing that violence, failure to do so is a failure of core civic leadership,” Kennedy said.
De La Fuente agrees.
“I feel like there are no words to describe collectively as elective officials how we have failed to get a hold of this reign that is destroying our city, and even killing our babies,” De La Fuente said. “I don’t think we have an excuse.”
City Council President Larry Reid adds, “Cincinnati still has 1,200 police officers. In Oakland, we barely have 700 officers on the streets. Our police department is undermanned and needs additional officers to handle this violence.”
Both councilmen said the city and Quan need to make improving public safety the top priority.
“If Occupy Oakland can get thousands of people to shut down our port, but yet and still there is no huge outcry about the loss of life in this city, that says a lot about us,” Reid said.
Quan said last year’s homicide rate began to decline during the summer after the city rehired dozens of officers laid off in 2010. She also noted the city’s latest strategy is to have police and other law enforcement agencies, including the Alameda County Sheriff’s office and the California Highway Patrol, concentrate on the city’s 100 most violent blocks.
“This covers 5 percent of the city, but where 92 percent of the murders take place,” Quan said.
After bringing balloons to little Gabriel’s makeshift memorial on Wednesday, Tashana Newsom, 36, a lifelong Oakland resident and mother of five teenagers, wiped away tears and wondered aloud when the violence would end.