OAKLAND — In a change felt across most of the East Bay — including Oakland, Richmond and Antioch — skyrocketing rates of gun violence in 2020 and 2021 finally ebbed last year, according to a Bay Area News Group analysis of regional crime data.
The crime figures may signal that the region is beginning to recover from “a really terrible period — an unprecedented shock to Americans across class and community,” said Jonathan Simon, a professor of crime and criminal justice at the UC Berkeley.
The question is whether that progress can continue.
“It seems like we’re coming out the other end,” Simon said. “We know we can have a lot less violence than we’ve been experiencing in the last couple of years. And this year suggests that we’re slowly finding our way back to that.”
Yet even as police leaders in Oakland hail tangible progress in combatting gun violence over the last year, steep challenges remain in reining in the scourge of gang violence and revenge killings that have fueled the city’s surging homicide rates since 2020. Overall crime rates remain far higher than they were just before the pandemic reordered society. And property crimes continued to rise in 2022.
Dialing back crime rates to the lower levels seen in the late 2010s may take far longer than city leaders wish, said Robert Weisberg, a professor of law and criminal justice at Stanford University.
“If this indicates a trend — a downward trend — it’s going to go downward very slowly,” Weisberg said.
After having hit a 15-year high in 2021, killings investigated as homicides by the Oakland Police Department dropped from 134 last year to 120 in 2022, according to data compiled through Monday. Another six people died in shootings on freeways within city limits.
Aggravated assaults in 2022 dropped by about 10% from the prior year, while assaults involving firearms dropped about 25%, according to data compiled by the Oakland Police Department as of Dec. 26. Reports of someone shooting at a home or vehicle dropped by more than a third in 2022, compared to the previous year. Robberies in 2022 remained roughly flat compared to the previous year, as did carjackings.
In a sign of the work that remains to be done in Oakland, killings and other firearm-related crimes remain about 50% above averages for the five years immediately preceding the pandemic, this news organization’s analysis found.
“We’re still pretty high,” Weisberg said. “I don’t know — is it possible the pandemic caused certain social stresses that will last for a long time after the pandemic really ends?”
Property crimes represented a notable outlier in 2022. As of Monday, burglaries were up at least 10% over last year in Oakland, led by marked increases in vehicle and commercial break-ins, while general larceny increased at least 20%. And reports of stolen vehicles rose at least 5%, as of Monday.
Elsewhere in the East Bay, crime figures showed much the same trend, with violent crime trending down and property crime generally rising.
In Richmond, the 18 homicides seen in 2022 matched the 2021 total — but the deaths slowed as the year went on, with Richmond police reporting no homicides between August and December. In Antioch, police investigated eight homicides, the city’s lowest figure since 2018. Aggravated assault investigations in that city were also down 12% — but larceny, auto theft and burglary investigations all rose in 2022.
In Walnut Creek — where statistics have been tallied only through the end of September — residential burglaries were on pace to be up 15% from 2021, while auto burglaries had increased 33%. Overall, property crime in Walnut Creek was up about 9%.
Concord was a small exception. That city’s burglary investigations were up by about 10%, but its overall property crime was down about 6.5%. Other East Bay cities, including Berkeley and Hayward, have not made their annual statistics available for 2022.
In Oakland, Chief LeRonne Armstrong cited two major strategy shifts in 2022 for helping to quell the rising tide of violence in his city.
The first move came in January when he shifted resources to East Oakland — reassigning about 7% of sworn officers to that part of the city and creating a sixth police district in deep East Oakland, reasoning that doing so would help better focus resources in the area.
Armstrong’s second move came Sept. 27, amid a violent stretch when the city averaged a homicide victim a day for a week and a half. Nine people died in shootings from Sept. 19 through Sept. 27, including two men gunned down during a drive-by shooting at a Middle Eastern restaurant on Telegraph Avenue, just minutes after services ended at a nearby mosque.
Armstrong once again shifted officers to high-crime areas, this time in East and West Oakland, while reinvigorating the department’s traffic unit and assigning eight officers to a criminal investigative division with the hope of clearing crimes more quickly. The shift relied heavily on the department’s Ceasefire program, which employs outreach workers to find people and groups most likely to engage in gun violence.
The plan got off to a rocky start. A day after Armstrong’s announcement, multiple gunmen stormed the foyer of an East Oakland education campus and opened fire — wounding six people as part of a targeted gang hit on someone there. A few days later, two Berkeley High School teens were fatally shot and two others were wounded when gunmen opened fire at a house party hosted at an Airbnb in North Oakland.
But over the following weeks, the run of shootings eased. In recent months, Armstrong has repeatedly cited his September strategy shift for stemming the violence — noting that officers have worked to confiscate hundreds of guns off the streets of Oakland.
“That really says that this focused effort on those that are driving gun violence is not only showing that we can reduce gun violence by focusing on the right people, but we can also get the firearms out of people’s hands who are looking to drive crime,” Armstrong said.
Still, it’s difficult to gauge the true impact of OPD’s strategy shifts. The Police Department repeatedly declined to offer details about where officers were assigned in September, making a more thorough analysis of crime records impossible.
In any case, most violent crimes — in particular, those involving guns — had already begun leveling off or subsiding before Armstrong’s announcement in his Sept. 27 news conference, an analysis of weekly, citywide crime data shows.
Homicides already were down about 5% from the prior year, while assaults involving firearms were down 23% and reports of people shooting at homes or vehicles were down 35-43%, police data shows. Further reductions in crime over the last three months of 2022 were to be expected, because most violent crimes peak during the summer months and subside during the colder, darker days of winter, said Simon.
The true test will come in 2023, experts said, when it will likely become clearer whether the easing of violent crime at the end of 2022 was an aberration or a sign of a larger, safer trend.
“It’s a kind of reset,” Weisberg said. “Overall, we’re probably moving back in the direction of the pre-pandemic average, but maybe slowly. It will take a while.”