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Reality Check: Violent Crime Is Down in Oakland

You'd never know it by watching the TV news or reading the mainstream press, but violent crime has dropped this year in nearly every major category.

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A new poll released last week showed that many residents perceive that crime is getting worse in Oakland. Although the survey was flawed (we'll explain why shortly), it nonetheless revealed some interesting data about people's perceptions. For example, 55 percent of the poll's respondents said they feel "less safe" this year than in 2012. This belief about increasing crime also may be related to why large numbers of respondents said they think the city is on the wrong track (47 percent), and why so many gave Mayor Jean Quan an unfavorable rating (62 percent). In truth, however, violent crime has decreased this year in Oakland — it's down in three out of the four major reporting categories.

As of Monday, homicides had decreased 16 percent compared to last year at this time and were at their lowest point since 2010, according to crime stats reported by the Oakland Police Department. In addition, assaults were down 5 percent from 2012, while rapes had declined 27 percent and were at their lowest level in eight years. The only violent crime category that was up this year was robberies, which have increased 25 percent. Even burglaries, which are not considered violent crimes, are down 5 percent this year. And residential burglaries have plummeted 18 percent.

So why is there such a deep disconnect between the reality of crime going down in Oakland this year and the perception by poll respondents that crime is, in fact, getting worse? For starters, the poll — as the Express noted in an online report last week — had problems. Commissioned by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the survey was skewed heavily toward older white voters. In fact, 51 percent of the respondents in the survey were white, despite the fact that just 26 percent of the city's residents are white, according to the US Census.

In addition, 51 percent of the poll's participants were 50 years of age or older — including 25 percent who are 65 or older and 27 percent who reported being retired. In other words, the poll failed to obtain a representative sample of Oakland residents. The pollster, EMC Research, said that it was seeking out "likely" voters for next year's election, but did not explain what methods it used to define likely voter — other than selecting older white residents for its poll.

Regardless, even though the poll may not represent the views of all Oaklanders, it does appear to be a good reflection of what older white residents think about their city. And clearly, many of them feel less safe this year than in 2012 — even though violent crime is down overall.

Part of this disconnect likely has to do with the steep increase in robberies. There's no doubt that Oakland, like many other cities, is experiencing a robbery epidemic. And Oakland's is especially acute: Last year, the FBI dubbed Oakland the robbery capital of America. According to Oakland police, the surge in robberies is being driven in large part by the proliferation of easy-to-steal smartphones and other electronics. Lieutenant Chris Bolton told the San Francisco Chronicle that, according to an analysis he conducted earlier this year, 75 percent of all robberies in Oakland involved a cellphone.

Clearly, if you've been robbed of your smartphone, laptop, or iPad on the streets of Oakland in the past year — or know someone who has — you're probably going to feel less safe. In fact, the market for stolen electronics has become such a huge industry that many street gangs have abandoned the drug trade in favor of it, according to Oakland police. This, too, may impact people's perceptions about crime — especially white residents in wealthier areas. Whereas before these folks may have felt safer when the illegal drug trade was relegated to sections of West and East Oakland, now they may feel threatened because they're worried about their smartphones and other electronics being stolen.

People's misconceptions about crime this year are likely also attributable to the mainstream press. It's no exaggeration to say that local TV news, the Chronicle, and the Oakland Tribune bombard people nearly every day with stories about how bad crime is in Oakland. In fact, on some days, the only news stories about Oakland concern crime — even though there are plenty of other things to report on in the city. Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson compounds this slanted view of the city by harping on crime and the supposed failure of Oakland's leaders to be more "tough" on it nearly every week.

The disconnect between people's perceptions about how dangerous Oakland supposedly is — or how dangerous they've been told it is — and their actual experiences also were reflected in the chamber's poll. For instance, while 55 percent of respondents said they felt less safe, 70 percent described Oakland nonetheless as an "excellent" or "good" place to live. For many outsiders, it may come as a big surprise that 70 percent of Oakland residents enjoy living here, but for those of us who actually live here — and have for a long time — it's no surprise at all.

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