Do Oakland Police Violate Human Rights Law?

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oakland PD

Photo courtesy ABCNews

The Oakland Police Department’s failure to make arrests in the homicides of black members of the community as well as to provide support and assistance to family members without discrimination is arguably a violation of international human rights law,  according to a report released yesterday.

“Living with Impunity: Unsolved Murders in Oakland and the Human Rights Impact on Victims’ Family Members,” written by the International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC) of Berkeley Law, University of California, describes a community traumatized by violence and wounded by the police department’s treatment of victims’ families.

Since the 1990s, Oakland has been “one of the most violent cities in the country,” the report stated. “In 2006, when its wave of violence crested, there were more homicides per capita in Oakland than in the much larger cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

The city currently has more than 2,000 cold homicide cases on its books. As the report points out, “Nationwide, even as murder rates decline sharply, police are solving fewer murders. From a high of above 90 percent in the early 1960s, homicide clearance rates have hit the current low of just above 60 percent.”

A race gap clearly exists in the investigation and solving of murder cases in Oakland. “In the last decade, approximately 76 percent of the city’s homicide victims were black. During that time period, police made arrests in approximately 40 percent of Oakland homicides involving black victims and approximately 80 percent of homicides involving white victims.”


A section of a mural in West Oakland that depicts Antonio Ramos, a young local artist killed during the making of the mural.

Put another way, in East and West Oakland neighborhoods, where most of the city’s black families live, “police made an arrest in less than a third of murders,” according to the report.

More than 40 percent of Oakland’s general budget—a higher percentage than
in many other cities—goes to the police department. “Nevertheless, Oakland chronically understaffs its homicide section,” the report said.

In a city police department that seems to conduct little training in notifying and interviewing traumatized families, the failure to support “those most directly impacted by violence” is described as “systemic.”

According to the report, “The OPD does not have protocols for official death notification by police of next of kin, interaction with family members at the crime scene, or communication with family members during the investigation. Many family members reported that police did not return their phone calls or update them about the investigation.”

In a harrowing anecdote, the report said that one mother recalled a typical encounter with Oakland detectives at the hospital shortly after learning her son was dead this way: “Basically, the way [the detective] was asking me questions was more like he was talking to the person that did it, instead of somebody’s mother.”

The family members of black homicide victims said the treatment they received from law enforcement and the racial disparities in arrest rates for homicides “are further evidence of a criminal justice system skewed against them, deepening their distrust of law enforcement.”

Services exist for California crime victims, but “a majority” in Oakland were unaware of the services or found them difficult to access, according to the study’s research.

Furthermore, California law authorizes support for crime victims for only a limited time period. “Even when the murder remains unsolved and the effects endure for years, family members are eligible for only up to two years of assistance.”

The report argues that family members deal with “impunity”:  experiencing “lackluster police responsiveness and often disrespectful and discriminatory treatment, checkered availability of crime victim services and restrictions on who can take advantage of them, and stigma and safety concerns that not only often go unaddressed but are exacerbated by the criminal justice system’s cramped approach  to justice.”

Since the U.S. has an international obligation to fight impunity, “the systemic failure to prevent violence, investigate, and provide support and assistance to family members without discrimination in Oakland is arguably is arguably a violation of international human rights law.”

The report was based on in-depth interviews with 15 family members of 16 separate murders that occurred in Oakland and with 38 key informants about the impacts of the homicides, the priorities and needs of family members, and their attitudes and opinions about law enforcement and victim service providers.

Read the full report here

This summary was prepared by TCR Deputy Editor Nancy Bilyeau

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