Competing crime rallies illustrate Oakland’s political divide

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The hall at Genesis Worship Center in East Oakland and a nearby street were uncommonly busy Saturday — not for religious services but for a pair of events to discuss Oakland’s public safety problems.

A rally organized by Neighbors Together Oakland, a group formed by political activist Seneca Scott, a former mayoral candidate known for controversial statements, drew more than 200 people to Hillside Street to decry what they consider a growing crime problem in Oakland and a failure of city leaders to address it.

The event preceded a community meeting staged by Oakland and Alameda County officials across Ritchie Street in the center’s chapel. The meeting featured a host of city and county officials, including Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price and Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao, and started a half hour after the first event wrapped up.

The two events demonstrated the political divide that has erupted in Oakland as the city struggles to gain control of its crime problems while embracing its desires to reform the criminal justice system. 

A crowd waits in line to attend a public safety presentation at Genesis Worship Center in Oakland. 

A crowd waits in line to attend a public safety presentation at Genesis Worship Center in Oakland. 

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

While hundreds of folks waited in line outside, just 70 people were able to enter the church and witness presentations from Price, Thao, County Supervisor Nate Miley and other city and county officials.

Unlike a previous community meeting in Montclair that devolved  into a shouting match, Saturday’s session was mostly orderly, except for one incident in which a man interrupted Price’s presentation, shouting: “Are you going to defend us? Are you going to protect us?”

The district attorney did not address the man, who was escorted from the building.

Both Price and Thao largely relied on prepared video presentations to defend their performances in their months in office. The church’s Bishop George Matthews served as moderator, asking the speakers questions submitted in advance. Speakers did not field questions from the audience.

Price, who has been mostly quiet as criticism of her performance in office has rained down, defended it more forcefully Saturday, saying she doesn’t favor criminals over victims, has expanded and diversified the District Attorney’s Office staff, including hiring victim advocates, and has met with families and victims of crime.

Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price, left, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao and county Supervisor Nate Miley prepare to speak during a community safety meeting.

Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price, left, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao and county Supervisor Nate Miley prepare to speak during a community safety meeting.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

“Notwithstanding the criticism, we are victim centered,” she said, stressing that she’s taken steps to focus more on female crime victims of crime.

The district attorney also decried “the media hype” and dismissed perceptions that she ignores victims and their survivors.

“For someone to get on the news and say because I didn’t meet with them I’m not doing my job is not fair,” she said, noting that she’s met with many crime victims and families.

“I can’t meet with every victim of crime,” she said.

Price said her office has charged 7,610 cases in 2023, “including murder and serious violent felonies.”

She also pointed out that she’s often blamed for Oakland problems over which she has no control — police staffing and slow response to 911 calls among them.

“I am not the mayor of Oakland,” she said several times during her presentation.

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao describes her efforts to combat crime during a public safety presentation at Genesis Worship Center.

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao describes her efforts to combat crime during a public safety presentation at Genesis Worship Center.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

During her turn at the mic, Thao defended her approach to fighting crime in Oakland, saying she’s increased the numbers of officers on the streets to the highest level in three years as well as boosting programs directed at crime intervention and prevention.

More officers are in training in police academies at a time when most U.S. law enforcement agencies are having trouble recruiting new ones, Thao said, adding that she’s dedicated eight sworn officers to foot patrols and seven to traffic enforcement.

“But we will never have an officer on every block,” she said, noting that it takes time to get new officers hired, trained and deployed.

“You don’t just hire officers and put them on the street the next day,” she said.

The mayor said she  will announce a plan Monday to speed up response to 911 calls. Residents frequently complain that calls to 911 ring repeatedly before they’re answered.

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