For Guillermo Cespedes, head of the city’s violence prevention department, Oakland now refers to another troubled region of the world: Honduras, El Salvador and other countries where gang violence is endemic.
“Right before Oakland, I was working in Central America,” said Chief Cespedes. “And it seems more difficult.”
“I’ve been in this business for 42 years and I’ve never experienced anything like this,” he says.
Many of the tools Chief Cespedes has deployed during his career, including meeting the families of the victims, comforting them and, most importantly, trying to prevent retaliatory killings, have been blunted by the pandemic.
“There’s no way to zoom in with this family,” he says. “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 worst affected by the coronavirus in Alameda County, which includes Oakland, also saw the highest levels of violence.
A study published this month by researchers at the University of California at Davis estimated that 110,000 people in California bought guns this year because they worried about the destabilizing effects of the pandemic. The number, based on a survey conducted over the summer, appears to be corroborated by the wave of firearms background checks this year, about 95,000 more than last year. And these are only the weapons obtained through legal channels. Los Angeles has seen a 45% increase this year in the number of guns stolen from cars, some of which have subsequently ended up in shootings.
At a recent virtual police commission meeting, Michel Moore, the Los Angeles Police Department chief, spoke of the “erosion” of the city’s successes in reducing gun violence in recent years. He said homicides in central and southern Los Angeles were up about 50%.