Violent crime and other felonies fell in 2023 in America’s biggest cities. They increased in Oakland.
Robberies grew 38% last year in Oakland, according to police data. Burglaries increased 23%. Motor vehicle theft jumped 44%. Roughly one of every 30 Oakland residents had a car stolen last year, according to a San Francisco Chronicle analysis.
On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he was taking action, deploying 120 California Highway Patrol officers to Oakland and the surrounding area to conduct a law enforcement surge operation. The aim: to crack down on crime, including vehicle theft, retail theft and violent crime.
“What’s happening in this beautiful city and surrounding area is alarming and unacceptable,” Newsom said in a statement.
Business owners have been pleading for help for months.
Nigel Jones isn’t giving up on Oakland, even after Kingston 11, his community food center for low-income families, was vandalized and its glass doors smashed.
Jones immigrated to the United States from Jamaica when he was 16 and made his home in Oakland. The chef and restauranter currently owns two Jamaican restaurants, Calabash and Kingston 11. He says he is passionate about helping Oakland’s disadvantaged families.
But “residents and businesses have pulled back from the city,” due to a rise in crime and public safety concerns, he said.
In September, Jones and other downtown Oakland business owners walked off the job for a day to urge city and state leaders to improve safety in the area.
And last summer, Oakland police advised residents to use air horns to alert neighbors to intruders and add security bars to their doors and windows. The Oakland NAACP branch demanded elected leaders take action to ensure public safety, especially in predominately Black neighborhoods.
Jones said there’s a vicious cycle playing out in Oakland.
Residents and businesses have pulled back from downtowns, in part due to public safety concerns. That has left fewer people on the street and created more opportunities for robberies and other crime.
“I don’t want people to be fearful and stay home because businesses need you to come out and the more people on the street, the safer it will be,” said Shari Godinez, the executive director of Koreatown Northgate, which represents businesses in Oakland. “If nothing changes, it’ll just start becoming a ghost town.”
It’s not just small businesses. National companies are also pulling out of Oakland and taking extra measures to protect workers.
In-N-Out is permanently closing one of its restaurants for the first time ever, saying that its Oakland location will soon shutter because of car break-ins, property damage, theft, and armed robberies targeting employees and customers. Denny’s is shuttering its only location in Oakland after more than 54 years, citing public safety concerns.
Kaiser Permenente said a number of its employees working in its downtown Oakland offices were victims of armed robberies, vehicle theft and other crimes in the latter part of 2023. Kaiser reportedly issued a memo to employees recommending that staff stay in buildings for lunch. The company did not comment on the memo to CNN.
And Clorox said it hired uniformed security guards to chaperone employees to the office from public transit stations, parking garages, restaurants and coffee shops.
Homicide, gun assaults and most other violent crime fell in US cities last year, but they remain above pre-pandemic levels.
The number of homicides in 2023 fell by 10% compared to 2022, according to a study of crime trends in 38 cities by the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan criminal justice policy organization. (The study did not include Oakland.)
But other crimes have increased nationally.
Motor vehicle theft increased by 29% and, since 2019, motor vehicle theft has shot upward by 105%, the study found. Reported incidents of shoplifting, a crime that drew considerable attention from lawmakers and the media in 2023, jumped 22%.
“Big social and economic forces appear to have been behind the sharp trends that began in 2020, but now there is considerable variation between cities,” CCJ president Adam Gelb said in a statement. This variation “suggests local factors are becoming more significant.”
There’s no easy answer to explaining why crime has increased in Oakland. But the pandemic had a major impact, crime scholars say.
“Pandemic-related changes in people’s daily activities and emotional and economic stress levels, changes in police practices and a rupture of public trust in law enforcement, and the suspension or reduction of social supports and programs are among the theories offered by crime scholars,” according to the Council on Criminal Justice study.
Police services and violence prevention programs have been cut in Oakland. With ever-rising housing prices in Oakland and across California, homeless encampments have multiplied on sidewalks and under freeway bypasses. The rise in the homeless population has also increased public safety concerns, although someone who is homeless is no likelier to be a criminal than a housed person, research shows.
Rising crime is causing some Oakland business owners to question whether they can continue to operate in the city.
Cindy Varela, the owner of Zona Latina Hn, a Latin American restaurant, said burglars have broken into the restaurant overnight and vandalized it.
“These people come here and they broke my windows,” she said. “I lost my money.”
Crime “is a big problem here” and she’s lost customers because people are scared to sit down to eat.
If conditions continue like this, she may have to close the restaurant.
Police and law enforcement advocacy groups say more cops on the street are needed. Oakland has also been without a police chief for around a year.
Business leaders have called for tougher public safety policies in Oakland’s commercial districts, such as allowing police traffic stops for vehicles with illegally tinted windows, and more street police patrols.
Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao said that since taking office last year, she has “pursued a comprehensive community safety plan” focused on investing in the police department, strengthening violence prevention, and leveraging technology to disrupt criminal networks.
Over the past two months, there have been reductions in property crimes in business districts across Oakland, she said. She also directed the police department to resurrect its “Ceasefire Strategy,” which Oakland walked away from in 2020 to focus on pandemic relief.
Nigel Jones, the restaurant, said that the city is “not going to arrest our way out of this problem.”
It will take partnership between businesses, the mayor’s office, elected officials and others to create safer neighborhoods and improve business conditions.
“I’m invested in making the city live up to its full potential,” he said. “It’s what America talks about, [what] it wants to be — Oakland is that.”
CNN’s Veronica Miracle, Jack Hannah, Kevin Flower, Jeffrey Kopp and Elizabeth Joseph contributed to this article.
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