For Guillermo Cespedes, the chief of the city’s Violence Prevention Department, Oakland now brings to mind another fraught region of the world: Honduras, El Salvador and other countries where gang violence is endemic.
“Right before Oakland I was working in Central America,” Chief Cespedes said. “And this feels more difficult.”
“I’ve been in this field 42 years and I’ve never lived through something like this,” he said.
Many of the tools that Chief Cespedes has deployed in his career, including meeting with victims’ families, comforting them and, crucially, trying to prevent retaliatory killings, have been dulled by the pandemic.
“There is no way you can Zoom with that family,” he said. “They have to see your eyes, they have to feel your heart, they have to feel who you are and you have to feel who you are.”
Chief Cespedes said he was working to understand why many of the same areas hit hardest by the coronavirus in Alameda County, which includes Oakland, were also seeing the highest levels of violence.
A study published this month by researchers at the University of California, Davis, estimated that 110,000 people in California bought guns this year because they were worried about the destabilizing effects of the pandemic. The number, based on a survey conducted over the summer, appears to be corroborated by the surge of firearm background checks this year, about 95,000 more than last year. And those are only the guns obtained through legal channels. Los Angeles has seen a 45 percent increase this year in the number of guns stolen from cars, some of which have later turned up in shootings.
At a recent virtual meeting of the Police Commission, Michel Moore, the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, spoke about the “erosion” of the successes the city had reducing gun violence in recent years. He said homicides in central and south Los Angeles were up roughly 50 percent.