On the Block: A Pilot Program in Oakland, California, Combines Community Policing with Social Services and Gets At-Risk Young Men off the Street

By Smith, Chris | The American Prospect, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

On the Block: A Pilot Program in Oakland, California, Combines Community Policing with Social Services and Gets At-Risk Young Men off the Street


Smith, Chris, The American Prospect


It's been raining and the San Francisco Giants are on TV, so the streets are quiet. We're cruising through East Oakland, one of the most violent parts of a violent city. A knot of drug dealers loiters in front of a housing project, and craekheads sit in folding chairs on the sidewalk. Two teenagers in hoodies saunter by; another weaves back and forth on a small bike. Anthony DelToro gestures toward them: "When you see youngsters like that, all in black, the majority of the damn time they got guns." He pauses. "This is Oakland--everybody got a gun."

DelToro, a 24-year-old East Oaklander who wears an extra-large white T-shirt and a Giants baseball hat, knows of what he speaks. He grew up in a Norteno gang neighborhood, sold coke, heroin, and weed and served stints totaling two-and-a-half years in county jails. He now leads a Street Outreach team of locals in their 20s to 40s--some are ex-gang members and drug dealers, some have lost loved ones to violence. The common denominator is that they all command respect on the street.

They don white jackets (inscribed with the words "For a Safer Oakland") and walk through rough neighborhoods four nights a week. Crime drops when they're on the job: from 20 percent in an East Oakland hotspot to 32 percent in West Oakland, according to a study done for the city by an independent auditor. Statistics, however, don't measure everything the outreach workers do. They negotiate truces, act as mentors, and offer criminals a future--that doesn't involve prison or death--through jobs, counseling, or a face-saving way to return to school. "We may not have the answer," DelToro says, "but we can lead them to the people who do."

There are only a dozen Street Outreach workers, but they play an outsize role in the city's fight against crime. They're not cops--far from it. Still, they are an integral part of Oakland's Lifeline program, the local iteration of an innovative alternative-policing strategy that has cut down on arrests and decreased homicides by up to 50 percent in cities nationwide by combining iron-fisted law enforcement with old-school "root causes" measures such as wraparound social services.

As it turns out, in the most troubled neighborhoods, neither approach works well in isolation. Aggressive policing alienates the communities it aims to help, and the sheer level of dysfunction in places like East Oakland can frustrate even the best social programs. The success of Lifeline is that it joins these elements and ensures that each of the main actors (cops, community leaders, and service providers) reads from the same script. As Kevin Grant, an elder street statesman who spent over a decade in a federal prison for selling drugs and now coordinates the city's violence-prevention network, puts it, "It's a tag-team effort."

The model was test run in Boston in 1996, at the tail end of the nation's crack epidemic. David Kennedy, then a researcher at Harvard and now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and two colleagues noticed that less than 1 percent of the population was responsible for the majority of violence in most cities. They decided to concentrate on these high-volume criminals, many of whom were gang members. They designed a program in which a coalition of authorities, both legal and moral, told these apparent incorrigibles to quit killing and offered immediate job training and counseling if they did. If they refused to quit, the law came down on them--hard.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Operation Ceasefire, as it is known, was startlingly successful. Boston saw a 50 percent drop in murders. As Ceasefire spread to other cities, it became obvious that Boston wasn't a fluke. In Cincinnati, gang-related murders fell by half. In Stockton, California, a working-class city about 75 miles east of Oakland, gang-related youth homicides fell from 18 in 1997 to just one in 1998.

While the model focuses on curbing violence, it also tries to ensure its social-services work takes hold. …

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