On the Block

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 crackheads 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.

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. (Outreach teams aren't used everywhere, but some cities have found them highly effective at both reducing violence and convincing offenders to accept help.) Kennedy now co-chairs the National Network for Safe Communities, of which Oakland and cities like Los Angeles and Chicago are a part.

Kennedy, who first published his ideas in this magazine (see "Can We Keep Guns Away from Kids?" Summer 1994), co-founded the network to help cities adapt the Ceasefire model to their needs by offering technical assistance, research, and specialists to aid in the rollout. In Oakland, the NNSC is beginning to fine-tune the city's violence -- prevention strategies and to research their effectiveness. These measures are essential for securing the necessary funding and institutional support to entrench the programs as official policy. Kennedy's intention is to "reset" the relationships between law enforcement and offenders by implementing the program everywhere it is needed. If that happens, he estimates, "it'll cut the homicide rate by half nationwide, maybe more."

Oakland certainly needs help. In 2009 it was ranked the nation's third most violent city, according to the publisher CQ Press, which analyzes the FBI's annual crime numbers and assigns an overall score for almost 400 cities. Oakland is a divided city, split between affluent hilltop neighborhoods and flatlands in which the poor scrape by, their streets patrolled by a police force often seen as an occupying army.

The city has experimented with what has become known as community policing. In criminal justice, that's often shorthand for an alternative enforcement strategy that puts police in close contact with the communities they serve, collaborating to prevent crime instead of reacting to it. Of course, as implemented across hundreds of jurisdictions, community policing has meant different things depending on the locale.

In Oakland, a dedicated beat officer works proactively with neighborhood crime-prevention groups on local concerns like prostitution and drug-dealing to ensure that each community has a fixed point of contact with the police. The policy has seen a number of false starts (one past police chief, for instance, didn't like the idea of his officers "going native"), but crime has dropped over the last few years.

Faced with a budget deficit of $30.5 million last summer, however, Oakland laid off 80 cops and more than half of its neighborhood service coordinators and reassigned its community-policing officers to patrol. More budget cuts and layoffs are likely to happen by the end of this year. The Oakland Police Department insists that community policing will continue, but it is unclear what it will look like.

Howard Jordan, Oakland's assistant chief of police, says that the department has trained its officers in preventive- and community-oriented policing, and that patrol officers will continue to tackle neighborhood problems when they have the time. "Our ideal is to make everyone a community-policing officer," he says. "It just depends on your definition of community policing."

Lifeline, which plans to hire more outreach workers, promises to fill some of the gaps in police presence. While Lifeline's work isn't community policing, it serves many of the same ends. Lifeline doesn't ask cops to become social workers, as the cliche goes; it just asks them to enforce the law more selectively to avoid the indiscriminate crackdowns that anger communities, which frees police to concentrate on the worst offenders. The outreach workers help tamp down violence in the city's most volatile areas and connect young guys on the corners with the social services that provide a path out of the thug life. When all the parts work together, communities can reclaim their neighborhoods. So far, Lifeline's approach appears to be working.

***

Last spring, a police officer hand-delivered a letter to Erik Agreda, a 28-year-old repeat offender who lives in West Oakland, demanding he attend a meeting for habitual offenders at City Hall. This is known as the "call in," Lifeline's police-run component. Call-in participants are either on probation or on parole and possess lengthy rap sheets. Agreda was no exception. He had just finished his latest stint, 11 months for crack possession, in November 2009.

Agreda and 10 other men were summoned to a municipal conference room where they stared down a crowd of cops, U.S. attorneys, FBI agents, and neighborhood community leaders. Each speaker came at the subject from a different angle. The cops threatened prison time; the community leaders, which included relatives of crime victims, struck a more conciliatory tone. Their message was unmistakable: Stop the violence.

Agreda says he wasn't impressed by the tough talk: "I thought it was bullshit. They tried to scare us, saying they were going to hand our files to the feds."

Afterward, an outreach manager asked Agreda if he needed help with anything. Agreda was unemployed and shot back sarcastically, "Yeah, can you find me a job?"

"I meant it as a bluff," Agreda says. He probably would have forgotten about the offer of help, but the case manager followed up a few days later with an opening for a temporary position. Soon Agreda was sorting trash and recycling and loading trucks and building furniture for Pottery Barn and West Elm.

Agreda is trying to make the change stick. He's been out of prison for a year -- his longest period of being a free adult -- and trying to get off probation for the first time in seven years. "I've been in trouble most of my life," he says. "Usually it's seven months and I'm back in again. It's time to grow up."

Little hard data exists yet on Lifeline's effectiveness, but the preliminary evidence is encouraging. There have been 11 call-ins with 80 habitual offenders since November 2009. (Another meeting was scheduled for November 2010.) Oakland's unemployment rate is 17 percent, and these men rank among the city's least employable, but nearly 30 percent have already found work. Close to 20 percent, meanwhile, are back in school. While 19 of the men have violated their parole or probation, only eight have committed new offenses, a 10 percent recidivism rate compared to the county-wide recidivism rate of 39 percent within the first year. Plus, only a handful of the new violations were violent, a minor miracle considering the group's history.

A similar trend has played out in Ghost Town, a mostly African American neighborhood in West Oakland. This pocket of empty storefronts and rundown bungalows has seen 149 shootings and killings since 2007, the third-highest total in the city. Before Lifeline became involved, the police regularly swept the neighborhood and made many arrests, but it wasn't enough. "Traditional police work hadn't done the job," Jordan says.

In 2008, the outreach teams began their work. The following year, police started the call-ins, zeroing in on the worst offenders. The violence has dropped sharply: Only nine of those 149 shootings and homicides occurred in the first seven months of 2010. "When we started this process, there were bodies on the streets," says Don Link, a former member of the city's Community Policing Advisory Board who chairs a neighborhood crime-prevention group. "Now shootings are the exception rather than the rule."

***

For all its promise, Lifeline is still evolving, and its future is uncertain. Oakland's politics are defined by fiefdoms that rarely agree on criminal-justice issues, and programs come and go with terrifying speed. There's no guarantee, for instance, that the next mayor, who takes office in January, will continue to support Lifeline. Grant, the violence-prevention coordinator, has seen this process up close over the years. "You can have a perfect program," he says, "and it's working, but in two years they'll say, 'Oh, it's over with. There's a new mayor in town, and that was married to the old mayor so wipe it from the table.'" It can be frustrating, but he says he hopes the new administration, seeing Lifeline's success, will allow the program to grow.

Beyond crime statistics, Lifeline already has accomplished things that many Oaklanders would have thought unlikely, if not impossible. In its small-bore way the program is helping to bridge the divide between police and communities. Jordan was skeptical at first of working with ex-felons, but he's a believer now: "The outreach workers reach the hearts and minds of people who would never listen to us."

Back in West Oakland, Agreda says he's doing well, managing his family's gift store and raising his 3-year-old son. He remains skeptical about the call-in but admits that it pushed him in the right direction: "In a weird way, it served its purpose."

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