Crime over lots of time

So there’s no doubt things are looking grim in Oakland these days. Everywhere I go, it seems like people want to tell me stories about how crime has never been so bad in town ever, and they would know because their family has lived here since 1870 or something. Seriously. The things people have been saying over the last couple of weeks, you’d think Oakland in the 80s was Mayberry or something. There’s certainly no doubt that crime is disturbingly high and that action needs to be taken. But let’s have some perspective.

OPD’s website helpfully provides historical data for Part 1 offenses going back to 1969, and it’s an interesting chart to look at, and anyway, I’ve prepared some quick visual representation of some of the numbers contained therein. Enjoy.

So go right ahead and complain about how our current level of crime is unacceptable, because it is, and how the City isn’t doing enough, because they aren’t, but please, let’s not sit around and pretend that 20 years ago Oakland was some crime-free utopia and things have only now gotten bad, because it’s just plain not true.

16 thoughts on “Crime over lots of time

  1. Steve R

    Thanks for posting this, hopefully it will bring some clarity to the issues we face. I’ve long thought Oakland’s social ills have deep roots going back decades (Jane Jacobs wrote about Oakland’s crime problems in Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961), and I don’t think these social problems begin and end at city borders, really–they’re larger systemic problems concentrated/reflected in particular cities (DC, Detroit, New Orleans, etc). But the problems are solvable with the right leadership. The frustration is dysfunctional populations and their sympathizers electing dysfunctional leaders, it’s a hard hole to dig out of. Somehow in all this mess at City Hall I’m optimistic that enough people are ready for serious change.

  2. Deckin

    Well, I don’t know what all is included in Part 1 offenses, but for those you break out, we’re looking at least a doubling of murders and felony assaults since 1969. Also, let’s not forget that the sixties nationally was marked by a virtually explosion in the crime rate. Go back to 1962 and I believe there were 25 homicides in Oakland. So it had already doubled from it’s earlier norm.

    But all of this leaves out the most important point. Crime twenty years ago was highly localized. Those people you’re referring to aren’t mistaken. It has never been like this, in the neighborhoods historically untouched by crime. I can’t find the link right now, but there’s a recent Atlantic Monthly article that discusses the differences to a city between highly localized crime and geographically disbursed crime, holding rates constant. It’s not the same thing at all and the latter is much much worse. A city can survive local pockets of high crime, so long as residents in the rest of the city feel safe. However, when no neighborhood is untouched, this leads to widespread unease and urban flight. Businesses can no longer predict what atmosphere they will operate in, the death of the city is near.

    So looking at overall rates is really misleading

  3. V Smoothe Post author

    Deckin –

    I think you’re thinking of this article.

    In your penultimate comment, you lauded the Oakland of 25 years ago, where, in your words, “crime was kept in check.” I’m pointing out that we had way more crime then that we do now – look at the comparison chart below:

    The comparison is even more staggering when you take into account a population increase of almost 70,000 people in those 25 years, and look at the level of crime per 10,000 residents:

    So even if, as you suggest, crime back in the day was hyper concentrated, then that means those areas where crime was localized had absolutely astronomical crime rates. It’s hard to understand how that could be viewed as acceptable. I understand that the spread of crime to a wider geographic area creates other problems in terms of attracting investment, but everyone deserves to feel safe in their home, not only people who live in a nice neighborhood.

  4. VivekB

    Re:the per capita comparison. Forgive me, i’m not following something, must be the lack of caffeine.

    You said “the comparison is even more staggering…”, which made me think that the point was “Crime really sucks now”. However, the table generally shows that crime is significantly lower per capita now than in 1982.

    Is the big message that crime, albeit lower, is now well spread throughout Oakland, which is causing an overall deterioration in the attractiveness of Oakland as a city?

  5. Chris Kidd

    vivek- you’re confusing Deckin’s an V’s arguments with each other. V’s saying things in the 80′s were way worse than they are now, both across the board and relative to population size. Deckin’s saying it’s worse now because crime is spread out more evenly in Oakland now, whereas in the 80′s crime was concentrated in the flatlands.

    I think I have to go with V on this one. From a useless, subject view point: I grew up here in the 80′s, and it seemed way worse. Whenever I left the state, the first thing people would ask after hearing I was from Oakland was “have you been shot at?”. Now, it’s like the 4th question, so that’s a plus. I was also playing around with the murder-map on Chip Johnson’s latest article, and it still looks like almost all of the killing is taking place below 580, which would suggest there are still “safe” neighborhoods. That map didn’t show other types of crime, so I could be wrong.

  6. gem spear

    Of course, for the 25,000 or so people that have moved here since the mid 90′s, crime /has/ increased dramatically.

  7. Robert

    You can go to Oakland Crimespotting, http://oakland.crimespotting.or, to get the crime maps for the last few weeks. I thought it used to give a wider time frame, but it doesn’t seem to anymore. Anyway, Chip Johnson should do a little bit more research before he rags on crime in Oakland. While the last couple of weeks have seen a high number of murders, they have almost all been in East Oakland, while the Acorn gang was in West Oakland. It is a bit of a struggle to blame a turf battle for West Oakland for a spike of murders in East Oakland. If anything, looking at the total crime map, it looks to me like all crime is down somewhat in West Oakland since the Acorn bust.

    I have lived in San Leandro and Oakland from the fifties until the mid seventies, and then again from the late nineties until now. Anecdotally at least, crime in all those years was concentrated in East and West Oakland, with some up around Berkeley, and some between lake Merritt and Fruitvale. The hills, Piedmont Ave, etc. were all fairly crime free, just as they are now. I would really need to see some more definitive statistices to believe that crime has actually spread out to a broader area in Oakland than the historical patterns.

    There have been a few high profile incidents in the ‘safer’ areas of Oakland recently, and that may be what folks are up in arms about, but by the numbers, there really is not a crime wave in those areas.

  8. Deckin

    I think we’ve got a couple of different base years in play now: 1969 and 1982. I’d prefer to use the mid 60s as the basis point. From the late 60s to the early 90s Oakland was basically in a period of economic stagnation and undergoing massive middle income flight to the suburbs. Perhaps its no coincidence that those dates line up exactly with Robert’s non-residence in Oakland. I expect he’s not alone.

    As for the distribution of crime, it’s an entirely empirical matter and I’d like to know what the facts are. Maybe the technically minded (Smoothe, up for this one?) could find the data and look at a Poisson Distribution over the map of Oakland and see what we find.

  9. Jason

    Overlay a map of the overall economy over the crime graph and a correlation will probably become evident.

  10. Max Allstadt

    The overall economy?

    You could overlay unemployment rate or household income or individual income. I think Jason is right, you’ll see a correlation. You’ll probably see one over time too, if you do the same for those graphs.

    It won’t be a perfect match in either case, for instance, income and employment in entertainment districts is high, but so are muggings, no?

    Robert has a point too – people in “safer” neighborhoods freak out if a high profile incident happens. “safer” means “richer”.

  11. Jason

    Yes, I mangled that sentence. Somehow I got “map” confused with “graph.” Maybe it’s a mild stroke, or a migraine.

    Anyway, Max got my point, through no merit of my own.

    I meant to say something more like “general economic trends” or “any of a wide array of economic indicators” (yes, over time).

    Or, better stated, crime gets worse when the economy tanks. It’s conventional wisdom; it’d be interesting to see if the numbers bear it out.

  12. dto510

    The “overall economy correlates to crime” argument is a standard excuse offered by do-nothing politicians – I heard Nancy Nadel making the same argument at election forums. She lost the most crime-ridden parts of her district, so it didn’t seem to work.

    Here are four obvious problems with the argument: first, Oakland’s crime wave started well before the national economic slump (which began maybe at the end of last year, and really isn’t that bad). Second, Oakland’s economy is not the same as the national economy (for example, Oakland boomed immediately after the dot-bomb, as did LA). Third, local politicians have control not only over local crime-fighting measures (ie, the number of police, which crime-prevention programs to fund) but also the local economy. If we didn’t have an anti-business mayor Oakland’s economy would be doing better. If we didn’t have as much crime, maybe Brandywine would have leased some space at Center 21 and not bailed on Oakland, and the local economy would be better. Fourth, Oaklanders were probably relatively wealthier and better employed in the 1970s, when crime was higher than it is now.

    No more excuses. It’s time to do something about crime.

  13. Deckin

    Something seems to have been lost here. One thing one can do with some fairly advanced statistics is see to what extent occurrences over a geographic space fit some pattern or are just randomly distributed. The null hypothesis is that they are randomly distributed and then you test to see the confidence one could have to reject the null hypothesis. The classic example is the V-2 bombing raids of London in WW2. Many thought they exhibited a distinct pattern and surmised there must be spies on the ground in London tipping off the Germans to account for the pattern. It was found on analysis that no such pattern existed.

    Now the question as to whether crime is more geographically distributed than in the past would be answered, I’m guessing of course, by taking some base year’s geographic distribution as a baseline and then analyzing to what extent the current distribution is consistent with the null hypothesis of no change in distribution or whether we have some confidence in rejecting that null hypothesis and inferring that a change in distribution had indeed occurred.

    On the other direction taken on this thread, the seemingly strong correlation between poverty stricken areas and crime, from what I recall, actually evaporates if one controls for other variables. For instance, I believe the Fruitvale has a lower income level than other areas with higher crime rates. Between cities this lack of correlation is even more striking. Fresno, by any measure, is a much poorer city than Oakland. Yet the poorest areas of Fresno are significantly safer than less poor areas of Oakland.

  14. Max Allstadt


    I was thinking more of seeing local numbers on economics correlated with local numbers on crime. And I don’t think it’s a valid excuse for anything, whether or not there’s a correlation. Our elected officials are entrusted with power to affect local crime and local economics, we can blame them when either goes awry.

    Crime probably correlates just as much with socio-political issues as it does with money. The 70′s saw heroin and despair brought back from Vietnam, along with the failure of integration to create the equality that folks had hoped for. Of course it was mayhem.

    All I’m saying is, Jason’s got a point about looking at more than one set of statistics at a time.

    Deckin, I thought the V-2 rockets were following a pattern laid out by one Mr. Tyrone Slothrop…