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East Oakland the epicenter of city’s surge of homicides amid pandemic. ‘The situation is getting worse’ – San Francisco Chronicle

Santos Gomez Lopez peered over her tall picket fence, taking in a grim but familiar scene. Police cars were parked haphazardly outside her house in East Oakland, where a triple shooting occurred hours earlier. A body was lying on the sun-baked asphalt, covered in yellow tarp.

Officers had secured a perimeter along the 1900 block of 84th Avenue, hanging caution tape to deter onlookers, who came anyway. Word spread quickly after one man died in a spray of bullets shortly before 1 p.m. Wednesday. Another died of his wounds later in the hospital, while a third was injured.

Standing at the roped-off corner of 84th Avenue and Olive Street, Juvenal Hernandez wept inconsolably. “It’s my son,” he said in Spanish, referring to one of the slain victims. “Nineteen years old.”

The area has emerged as the epicenter of a relentless wave of shootings and homicides in Oakland, a city that has so far logged 79 slayings in 2020. That figure is a 36% rise from the 58 killings seen by this time last year — an uptick police are linking to the coronavirus, gang skirmishes and guns.

The latest came Thursday night, when police found two men and one woman with gunshot wounds near 89th Avenue and International Boulevard, about 10 blocks away from the Wednesday shooting. One of the men died at the scene.

Interim Police Chief Susan Manheimer sees the city’s surge of violence as a disturbing relapse, coming after five years of historic reductions in gun crimes. Police have attributed those successes to a centralized gun investigations team and their celebrated violence interruption program — one that’s been forced to curb its services since the start of the pandemic.

“We have a community that is already in trauma from this incredible increase in gun violence,” Manheimer said, citing a spike that coincided with the shelter-in-place period, when homicides suddenly jumped 86%. “ To see these increases, just since COVID and shelter-in-place hit, is really concerning to us.”

At left in front of the white truck is where a 39-year-old man was killed and two other people were wounded in a shooting Thursday night at the sidewalk here at the 1400 Bloc of 89th Ave.on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2020 in Oakland, Calif. The name of the man killed has not been released yet. Authorities said the two wounded were a 58-year-old woman and a 62-year-old man.

The overwhelming majority of these killings stemmed from firearms, with 63 gun deaths accounting for 81% of this year’s homicides. Total crime in Oakland has fallen by 11% between this year and last year, but most gun-related crimes have bucked the trend.

Assaults with a firearm are up by 48%, and shootings at a home or vehicle are up 47%, according to police records. Non-firearm aggravated assaults are up just 5%.

As of Oct. 11, Oakland police have recovered 971 guns this year, 752 linked to a crime. During the same time last year they recovered 716 firearms, 576 of which were determined to be crime guns. Police say this year’s figures include a vexing amount of high-powered artillery that seems to be pouring into the area from out of state.

Oakland isn’t alone. Shotspotter, the gunfire detection system used in dozens of other cities across the country, recorded a 32% jump in San Francisco during the first seven months of 2020. The company released data showing a big uptick in many areas, with the gap between 2019 and 2020 widening during shelter-in-place orders and after the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd.

Across the Bay, much of the violence is concentrated in East Oakland, where tensions have escalated in tandem with the pandemic and the distressed economy. Gangs appear to be battling over turf. Residents in some neighborhoods “are hearing and experiencing gunfire each and every night,” Manheimer said.

Lopez has become accustomed to seeing chaos and tragedy unfold outside her house. Gazing at the aftermath of Wednesday’s shooting, she shook her head wearily. She had heard gunshots the previous Friday at about 6:30 p.m., then again at 3 a.m. Saturday morning. Her 3-year-old granddaughter, who ran through the front yard Wednesday afternoon and clung to Lopez’s legs, has come to recognize the sound.

“On Friday, my nephews were standing here on the corner when the shooting began,” Lopez said, gesturing toward the sidewalk. “And they had to run.”

The recent string of shootings around 84th Avenue appears to be driven by internal fighting among members of one gang, Manheimer and Deputy Chief Leronne Armstrong said in a Thursday interview. On Tuesday night, an unidentified suspect fired more than 60 shots from an automatic weapon at 84th and Dowling Street, pummeling homes and cars with bullets about three blocks from where the triple shooting happened on Wednesday.

“Those 60 rounds two nights ago were just horrific,” said Manheimer, referring to an audio recording captured by Shotspotter. “It sounded like we had a neighborhood at war.”

“I’ll hear gunshots, and I think it’s fireworks,” said Hugo Lombera, standing in his driveway on 85th Avenue on Wednesday afternoon. “It’s become so common I just don’t know the difference.”

A lot of families with children live in the area, Lombera noted, pointing toward the street as a boy zipped by on a bicycle. Some of them describe feeling under siege, and many protect their homes with wrought-iron gates or guard dogs who bare their teeth at anyone passing by.

The surge has overburdened an already strained police force: At 10:37 p.m. Wednesday, the city had 161 emergency calls pending, with the vast majority — 140 — for the area south of Fruitvale Avenue. Three police beats in East Oakland had priority calls, meaning a serious crime is in progress, and officers had stopped taking crime reports in that area so they could triage faster.

At the same time, city leaders are knee-deep in an effort to reshape public safety in Oakland and cut the police budget in half, an idea inspired by racial justice protests over police killings of Black people. The stunning number of shootings in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods will surely play into the discussion.

“The situation is getting worse,” Lopez said in Spanish as a crowd gathered outside her fence. Relatives of the victims set up folding chairs and handed out water bottles. Neighbors coming home from work milled about, unable to cross the police line.

For years, city officials have credited a program known as Ceasefire for helping to drive down gang and gun violence. The program zeroes in on individuals who are at the greatest risk of shooting or being shot, and connects them with community programming and mentors to help steer them away from violence.

Members of the Oakland Police Department investigate a shooting that occurred on Wood St., outside the homeless encampment, in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, October 13, 2020.

An important part of the program is face-to-face communication, said Deputy Chief of Police LeRonne Armstrong. Normal “call-ins” consist of bringing together about 20 individuals at a time and linking them with services. Armstrong said lately those meetings have included only about five people at a time due to social distancing guidelines.

“We’re making modifications, we’re trying to adjust, but messaging to people is important, particularly when anxiety is high, because of the pandemic,” Armstrong said.

Statewide, about 110,000 residents acquired firearms in response to the pandemic, according to a recent study by the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. Researchers relied on a July survey to make the estimate.

Assistant Professor Nicole Kravitz-Wirtz, the study’s lead author, laid out theories similar to those of Manheimer and Armstrong, citing poverty, unemployment and a general lack of resources as factors contributing to this burst of violence.

“Early evidence has shown, circa the pandemic, we’ve seen that the spikes have been associated with increases in firearm-related death and injury,” Kravitz-Wirtz said.

Mayor Libby Schaaf on Friday addressed the recent violence in comments to reporters.

“We have seen a direct relationship between the effects of this pandemic and a heartbreaking increase in gun violence in Oakland. This week has been so tragic,” she said. “In Oakland, we believe in a holistic approach to safety, we believe in activating the strength and power of our community to bring peace, to bring people to more positive paths, and to resolve their anger and their conflict in ways that do not cause death and suffering.”

In the hardest-hit parts of East Oakland, the anger and grief are still raw. On Wednesday, Jose Rojas, the pastor of the nearby Pentecostals of Oakland Church, arrived at 3:30 p.m. and took Hernandez aside. They stood on the sidewalk and prayed. The crowd parted at 4 p.m. to make way for the coroner’s truck.

“I used to stand at my window every day and pray for Oakland,” Rojas said. “Sometimes I wish we could do more. Sometimes it’s just out of our hands.”

Megan Cassidy and Rachel Swan are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: [email protected] [email protected] Twitter: @meganrcassidy, @rachelswan

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