Surveillance footage of man recently released from prison brutally beating and robbing two women on July 5, 2024, in Oakland. (Photo via @oaklandpoliceca/X)

The Fall of Oakland

Mob lootings. Random shootings. Elderly people beaten in the street. The city has descended into lawlessness. Leighton Woodhouse reports.

OAKLAND, California — Around 4:30 a.m. on July 5, dozens of people broke through the front door of a 76 gas station mini-mart near Oakland’s international airport. For about 40 minutes, the mob casually looted tens of thousands of dollars of merchandise and stole $22,000 in cash from the ATM. The sole employee working the window ran away, called the police, and was told to file an online report. It reportedly took cops nine hours to finally arrive on the scene.

Earlier, on Juneteenth, 14 people were shot and injured in a gunfight by Lake Merritt, Oakland’s equivalent of Central Park. One of the victims was walking toward a Korean restaurant when a man strode up and shot him in the hand and in each thigh for no apparent reason. As the victim lay bleeding on the sidewalk, another stranger stole his phone.

Over a six-day period in late June and early July, thirteen elderly Asians were robbed and attacked on the street outside their senior living facility just north of Lake Merritt. The president of the building’s resident council believes the real number was more than double that when accounting for victims who did not file a police report. Then, last week, a viral video showed a man who was recently released from prison brutally beating and robbing two Asian women, one of them elderly. 

Oakland has a long history of crime, but residents say there’s something sinister about this current wave. The past several months alone have been so chaotic that community organizer Seneca Scott, who has lived here for 12 years and is also a Free Press contributor, declared on X on July 7 that “Oakland has fallen.”

I’ve lived in Oakland for about six years. From my house, I can hear the sounds of screeching tires from “sideshows”—a city tradition where drivers take over intersections and perform donuts in front of cheering crowds—multiple times a day. (Sideshows, which are often preludes to crimes, preceded both the 76 robbery and the Juneteenth shootings.) Burned-out husks of stolen and abandoned cars appear like roadkill by curbsides. It’s hard to tell whether staccato claps in the distance are illegal fireworks or gunshots. All of this has gotten worse in the years I’ve been here.

“There’s this sense of lawlessness,” LeRonne Armstrong, the city’s former police chief who was fired last year by the mayor and is now running for city council, told me. “This sense of, we can do whatever, there really aren’t any consequences—almost like a video game, like Grand Theft Auto or something.”

Even the nonviolent crimes reflect that video game–like absurdity. In January, about two blocks away from the 76 station, thieves hooked an outdoor Bank of America ATM to a van, tore it from the wall, and dragged it down the street. It was the second ATM in the area to be stolen just that morning. 

About three blocks away is a shuttered In-N-Out Burger. In March, the restaurant became the first the company has ever closed after customers and staff were subjected to a relentless barrage of car break-ins, thefts, and robberies. Across town, in the tony neighborhood of Rockridge, a liquor store was burglarized four times by thieves ramming cars through its glass front doors, a method that has become increasingly common in the Bay Area. 

“Oakland has never been like this,” Pastor Raymond Lankford of the Voices of Hope Community Church said last fall. “People breaking into houses brazenly, beating people, beating seniors,” he told me more recently. “Society has kind of lost its grip in some ways.”

While violent crime has fallen nationally, the picture in Oakland is still bleak. Oakland mayor Sheng Thao’s administration and California governor Gavin Newsom have touted a 33 percent drop in crime in the city, but Tim Gardner, co-founder of the data-driven news site Oakland Report, discovered this figure was based on misleading statistics the city has been promoting for years. While it’s true homicides and firearm assaults are down from last year, home invasions have doubled.

Even these more accurate figures may be deceptively bright, because a vast number of crimes go unreported. Last year, a local survey showed that 92 percent of Oakland businesses don’t bother reporting crimes, for a simple reason: it makes almost no difference. 

A report published in February showed the Oakland Police Department had a case clearance rate of 1.5 percent for serious criminal offenses in 2022, and just 6.5 percent for violent crimes. In other words, there’s a 93.5 percent chance you’ll get away with attacking someone in Oakland, and a 98.5 percent chance you’ll get away with a crime like burglarizing a store or stealing a car. When it takes days to get the most routine response, it leads to a sense of impunity.

Many victims and witnesses don’t even get far enough to file a police report, since it can be a challenge to get through to a 911 dispatcher in the first place. Oakland has the slowest 911 response time in the state and is at risk of being referred to the state attorney general over the problem. The crisis is the result of chronic understaffing of the dispatch center, but in the past year, the city’s human resources department accidentally ignored about 1,000 applications for dispatcher positions. Since then, the city has spent millions of dollars to fix the problem but wait times have barely improved.

But really, there are two big reasons for Oakland’s lawlessness: there just aren’t enough cops, and the ones who exist are trained to underpolice. And the mayor and the city council share the blame for both.

Just to reach the national average of 2.4 police officers per 1,000 residents, Oakland would need a police force of more than 1,000 officers. The city’s budget for this year allows only for 678, which is the legal minimum under a 2014 law. In practice, that number will be closer to 600 when accounting for officers out on long-term administrative or disability leave. That means less than the current average of 35 officers on patrol at any given moment for a city of 435,000 that’s awash in crime.

The abysmal understaffing of the Oakland Police Department is a function of two stubborn and related realities: the city council is ideologically committed to reducing the role of the police, and new police officers are reluctant to work for the city. “The recruits who want to do as little as possible are happy to work for OPD, while those who do real work are getting disciplined left and right,” a retired Oakland police officer told me.

There are few American cities that give their police less support. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, Oakland’s city council voted to divert more than $18 million from the force. Mayor Thao, who was then a council member, voted in favor of the measure. Last year, she put a hiring freeze on police. 

What’s more, the city’s police force has been under federal oversight for more than two decades. This federal monitoring has created a culture of passivity within the force, as officers are more likely to be scrutinized for acting—rather than failing to act—in the field. Under the federal monitor, “officers are being disciplined for very minor mistakes,” said Armstrong, the former police chief. “So they adopt a risk-averse approach. Doing less is safer, career-wise.” Add to that a district attorney, Pamela Price, who ran on the promise of prosecuting more officers, and “why even bother to do your job?” wondered Oakland Report’s Gardner.

The result of all this has been creeping anarchy, which has turned the city into a magnet for crime tourism. Oakland’s free-for-all is now attracting criminals from outside the city, Armstrong told me, because they know they can get away with it.

“We have allowed the way we approach and engage around public safety to breed more lawlessness,” former East Oakland city council member Loren Taylor, who came close to winning the mayor’s race two years ago and intends to run again, told me.

He may have his chance soon. The morning after the Juneteenth mass shooting, Oakland residents awoke to the news that the FBI had raided Mayor Thao’s home. The raid was part of an apparent corruption investigation whose targets and details still remain unclear, but which appear to involve political money laundering, two violent attacks on a possible key witness, and a nightclub allegedly engaged in drug dealing and sex trafficking

On top of that unfolding scandal, on July 9, the city council voted to allow a recall referendum for Mayor Thao on the November ballot. DA Pamela Price also faces a recall, and both could be ousted before the end of this year. 

Such a shake-up may be Oakland’s only path to recovery. “Our leaders are tone-deaf,” Armstrong told me.

“You have a police force that’s incapacitated and a criminal population that’s smart enough to recognize it, test it, and realize they can do anything they want,” said Gardner. “It’s 100 percent self-inflicted.”

Leighton Woodhouse is a journalist and documentary filmmaker in Oakland. Follow him on X @lwoodhouse and read his Free Press piece “America’s Police Exodus.”

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