Guillermo Cespedes believes Oakland's Department of Violence Prevention can be "absolutely transformational," but the relatively new department has run up against scarce budget resources and a wave of killings. Credit: Amir Aziz

When Guillermo Cespedes took the job of chief of violence prevention in Oakland in 2019, the city was experiencing a steady decline in homicides. The trend continued into 2020: from January to March of last year, after he’d been on the job for six months, seven people had been killed in Oakland, less than half the number of homicides over the same period in 2019. 

“I was going to have a press conference and retire and say, ‘See? I am a magician,’” Cespedes joked in an interview last September. 

Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention was established in 2017 to address the city’s chronically high homicide rate, which has left countless families and residents living with crushing levels of grief and fear. Cespedes, the department’s first chief—a title chosen to give the job gravitas equal to the police chief’s—was hired to be an institutional advocate for Oaklanders who suffer from heartbreaking violence and deficient government services, including those most at risk of committing an act of violence or being victimized. To achieve this goal, the department was set up to coordinate a network of dozens of nonprofits and city departments that serve people affected by violence.  

Then the pandemic hit. A stay-at-home order blanketed California, abruptly shutting down workplaces and schools. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs and, as some feared and predicted, the frequency of homicides and shootings across the city soared. Ceasefire, a program celebrated for reducing crime by offering people involved in violence a chance to engage in social services or else face law enforcement, was curtailed. Cespedes’ cellphone buzzed constantly with alerts of new deaths. He worked all hours, dispatching his six caseworkers to go out and respond to calls about anything from noise complaints to homicides. By the end of 2020, homicides increased by 27% in Oakland compared to the previous year. 

In December, Cespedes proposed adjusting his department’s budget to focus almost exclusively on reducing homicides where they most frequently occur in East and West Oakland. But he encountered pushback from employees of local nonprofits funded by the city who said that cutting services to youth and gender-based violence services—which account for a significant portion of the department’s budget and workload—was an unacceptable sacrifice. 

That conflict led the new chief, and others active in the field of violence prevention, to conclude that if this fledgling department is to live up to its mission, it will need far more financial and political support. For one thing, while Cespedes’ job title was chosen to echo that of the police chief, his department’s annual budget—just over one million—is a pittance compared to the over $330 million OPD has to spend each year. 

Today, the Department of Violence Prevention is struggling to meet the scope of its mission as serious violence continues to roil the city. The department has been fully staffed for just six months and most of its resources are devoted to managing contracts with local non-profits that are older than the department itself. At the same time, a brighter future for the department could be emerging. 

Oakland is scheduled to receive millions of dollars from the federal recovery effort, which will help thwart a massive budget shortfall. Additionally, the killing of George Floyd last summer inspired residents to insist on more city support for non-police services that address violence, which could significantly increase the department’s resources.  

In the meantime, however, Cespedes doesn’t joke about press conferences anymore. “We’ve gone through the worst nightmare that I’ve ever been through,” he said. 

Honoring life and death

On an unusually hot day last November, I met Cespedes for coffee in Oakland. The night before, he had gone to the scene of a fatal shooting. From his car, he watched police zip an unidentified man into a body bag. He and the police officers were the only ones there to watch the lifeless man be taken away. The anonymity disturbed Cespedes. 

“The person on the ground is somebody’s child,” he said. “That’s the city’s child.”

Simply showing up when someone is harmed, Cespedes believes, can help prevent violence. A social work graduate of Columbia University, he became an expert in violence prevention while working as deputy mayor in charge of gang reduction and youth development in Los Angeles from 2009 to 2013. There, he addressed gang violence by leading a team of social workers who showed up at the scene of every violent crime that occurred in the city. They responded to more than 2,500 crime scenes in three years. To make sure he could always get to a crime scene within 15 minutes, Cespedes went to bed every night with a fresh pair of clothes hanging over his closet door and a prepped coffee pot, a habit he maintains today. 

At the crime scenes, Cespedes and his staffers would help victims process their trauma and assess the risk of retaliation, allowing the police to focus on investigating the crime itself. He also noticed that the presence of a caseworker at a crime scene made for better interactions between residents of color and police. A “dyadic interaction” became “triangular,” he explained, leading to the name of his model: Triangle Response.

“Our emphasis was to keep the triangle balanced,” he said. “The more fragmented the relationship is between the police and the community, the more difficult my job becomes.” 

Responding to crime scenes, however, is just one aspect of what Cespedes thinks is necessary to reduce violence. He approaches violence prevention the same way that health professionals identify different levels of care for patients. Some levels of care represent opportunities to intervene in a patient’s life before a problem becomes serious, or even takes root, while others respond to life-threatening crises already underway. 

Primary care in violence prevention, for Cespedes, is anything that improves the overall health of a community, from job programs to recreational activities for children, and makes it less likely that people will hurt each other in the first place. Secondary care might look like a program he implemented in Los Angeles, which surveyed young people about their relationships with parents and peers, alongside gang connections, critical life events, delinquency, and other factors to identify which kids might be most at risk for engaging in violence. Finally, there’s tertiary care: sending a caseworker to talk to family members and witnesses at a crime scene to help them process their emotions and connect them to resources.

Cespedes believes a comprehensive approach must include both preventative and emergency care, approaches that can span a lifetime. “It is very important to elevate how people come into this world and create the best conditions for them,” he said. “I think we should do the same as somebody is leaving.”

Cespedes noted that from 2007 to 2012, essentially the same time period when he worked for the city of Los Angeles, homicides there dropped by 46%, aggravated assault by 40%, and assault with a deadly weapon against police officers declined by 67%, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who hired and oversaw Cespedes, believes his leadership had a lot to do with those drops. 

“There’s no question Cespedes is the best person in the country at what he does,” he said. 

City leaders and violence-prevention experts from around the country, including Oakland, also took notice of Cespedes’ ideas and occasionally shadowed him to study his approach. 

But it’s difficult to quantify whether Cespedes’ three-tiered model directly saved lives. The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit research organization Urban Institute studied Cespedes’ department and concluded it is impossible to determine if declines in Los Angeles’ crime rates from 2009 to 2014 were a direct cause of the violence prevention programming he put in place or a reflection of larger trends seen across California. 

For example, San Francisco saw a 31% drop in homicides over the same period, and the decline was 20% in San Diego, according to data maintained by the California Attorney General. Statewide, homicides and aggravated assaults fell by double-digit percentages. 

Urban Institute did find that participants in the violence prevention programs found them helpful and that their opinion of city government improved afterward. Police officers also said they appreciated the extra support at crime scenes. 

Cespedes left Los Angeles in 2013 to work for USAID-funded projects in Central America, where he was in charge of reducing violence in countries that suffer from homicide rates double that of the most impacted cities in the U.S. 

When he first heard of the new job in Oakland, he was leading violence prevention training in the South American country of Guyana. Cespedes was immediately sold on the idea of building a department dedicated to addressing violence without relying on police. 

“Absolutely transformational,” he said was his first thought. “To build a department of violence prevention with a public health, community-based approach requires a lot of forward thinking, confidence, and innovation.” 

Cespedes was familiar with Oakland before he took the job. He first moved to the city in the 1980s, seeking to form an Afro-Cuban band with relatives here. He came to the U.S. from Cuba at age twelve as a part of Operation Pedro Pan, a program that transported thousands of unaccompanied Cuban children to orphanages, foster care, and family members in the U.S. Working with nonprofits serving children, teaching music, and playing at all kinds of clubs with his band Conjunto Cespedes, he fell in love with Oakland and had his first child here. A chance to return to the city, and also help it, proved irresistible. 

“My friends thought it was professional suicide that I would leave the comfort of international work,” Cespedes said. “But I’m a sucker for the values that we profess about Oakland.”

A traumatized city

Oakland police at the scene of a homicide in May 2020. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Oakland’s problems with violent crime suggested that Cespedes’ job would be daunting, with or without a global pandemic. A report by UC Berkeley’s Warren Institute that examined crime in Oakland from 1987 to 2012 found that the city consistently ranked “among the top cities in California in terms of high crime rates for most crimes, but violent crimes in particular.” 

Disturbing racial disparities exist within these numbers. According to a report by the UC Berkeley International Human Rights Clinic, approximately 76% of the city’s homicide victims are Black. Yet the Oakland Police Department made arrests over the last decade in just 40% of Oakland homicides involving Black victims, while 80% of homicides involving white victims resulted in someone being arrested. Oakland has seen over 2,000 unsolved homicide cases over the same time period.

Roxanna Altholz, director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at UC Berkeley, said that the combination of systemic violence affecting Black Oakland residents and an ineffective city response creates an environment of impunity that rises to the level of a violation of international human rights law. “Impunity has been so systemic in Oakland,” she said. “There are people who have attended 20 funerals.”

Oakland’s police force has its own history of violence. The Black Panther Party formed in Oakland in 1966 with a goal of confronting police brutality. The department has been under federal oversight since 2003, when a group of officers known as the “Riders” assaulted and framed Black West Oakland residents. In 2016, twelve OPD officers were disciplined or fired after a group of them sexually exploited a minor. There are also incidents of police killing civilians while attempting arrest, but the department has significantly reduced the numbers of people shot and killed by its officers over the past decade.

In 2017, despite skepticism on the part of some city officials that more bureaucracy could solve the city’s violent crime rate, Oakland established the Department of Violence Prevention to try to address the fact that the people who suffer high rates of homicides, intimate partner violence, and sex trafficking are also more likely to experience harmful policing. Former West Oakland councilmember Lynette McElhaney spearheaded the effort. McElhaney’s adopted grandson, Torian Hughes, was murdered in 2015 in West Oakland. Searching for a better way to reduce the violence that claimed Hughes’ life, McElhaney and Larry Reid, who represented deep East Oakland on the council, wrote the legislation establishing the department. (Tragically, McElhaney’s son Victor McElhaney was murdered in Los Angeles in 2019.)

“We are traumatized by police,” McElhaney said of Black residents in Oakland. “We are policed in our communities, not served by police.” 

As the violence prevention department scrambles to get on its feet, McElhaney said the essence of Cespedes’ job as chief is to be a moral compass for the city and a representative for people impacted by violence. “He doesn’t see us through the lens of pathology. He sees us as humans and that our experience is beautiful,” McElhaney said of Cespedes. “We wanted someone who loved us enough to fight for us, our voice.” 

Chief of Police Leronne Armstrong, who assumed the position in February, welcomes working with the new department. For him, violence interrupters from the Department of Violence Prevention and local nonprofits are essential to repairing relations between Oakland and traumatized people as well as connecting them with essential services.

“For many years, officers had felt alone when they were handling these scenes and they felt the brunt of people’s anger and frustration at the lack of response from OPD—the inability for us to stop these shootings, to arrest the perpetrator of these violent crimes,” Armstrong said. “To have a partner there like DVP and start helping people through that trauma is key,” he continued. “We’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of the problem.”  

A major aspect of the budding department’s present work is forging a relationship with Armstrong and his officers to respond to violent crime in a coordinated fashion. The two chiefs are in regular communication. “We are building something very special in terms of being able to address violence in a comprehensive way,” Cespedes said about his collaboration with Armstrong. “I happen to believe you can’t prevent your way out of the problem, either. It requires a balanced approach.”

The cost of saving lives

When Cespedes announced his intention to roll out his vision for violence prevention in Oakland last year, he encountered obstacles. At a Life Enrichment Committee hearing in late 2020, he and his team presented a sweeping plan to streamline and coordinate city-funded violence prevention efforts by reconfiguring how the Department’s $10 million budget is spent. 

Cespedes proposed that more money be invested in life coaching for adults and community violence responders. In turn, the department would reduce funding for gender-based violence services by a third and funding for adult education and employment by two-thirds. Funding for youth life coaching, education, career, and probation services would be eliminated completely. The cuts sought to refocus the department’s budget on the people most at risk of shooting or being shot.

Dozens of non-profit leaders who are a part of the network of organizations the department is meant to lead objected to the changes. One of them was Anne Marks, the executive director of Youth Alive, an organization that works with youth affected by violence. The group receives about a quarter of its funding from the Department of Violence Prevention and had contracts with the city years before the new department was established. 

Marks didn’t understand why Cespedes would eliminate job programs for youth considering the young people she works with are usually affected both by violence and poverty. She is also confused by the suggestion to reduce funding for re-entry programs for youth exiting juvenile justice centers.

“To say, ‘Youth isn’t our thing, we’re going to focus on adults,’ that’s tough,” said Marks. 

Past studies conducted by the city to identify the groups most likely to be involved in gun violence have shown that it’s adults, not youth, who are most at risk. In 2014 and 2017, consultants and OPD noted that the average age of a shooting victim and perpetrator was 18 to 34 years.

In his three-tied prevention model, Cespedes sees youth programs as a form of “primary care,” akin to the way we think about diet and exercise in general healthcare. While diet and exercise contribute to a person’s overall health and can even prevent serious illness, he said, they are an insufficient response to the “acute disease” of shootings and homicides. With limited resources, Cespedes believes that he must get out his metaphorical scalpel and perform open-heart surgery on Oakland immediately. 

“Youth need those programs,” he acknowledges. But, he says, “that’s not going to stop the body bags right now.”

Critics were also troubled by the department’s decision to cut funding for programs combatting violence against women—one of its five mandates—by a third. Marissa Seko, who leads family violence intervention work at the Family Violence Law Center, noted that demand for those services has dramatically increased since the pandemic started. 

“We already are super under-resourced,” Seko said. “I’m so tired of our work being invisibilized constantly and the survivors we work with being invisibilized.” 

Andrea Diaz of MISSSEY, an organization that works with sexually exploited youth, said reducing funding to gender-based violence organizations reflects a violence prevention model that prioritizes men. “It very much showcases what happens within community and society—who is more important and who is more worthy of protection,” she said.

The criticism led Cespedes to walk back some changes in his proposed budget. He pledged to maintain current levels of funding for gender-based violence organizations and decided to hold a series of town hall meetings on the impact of gender-based violence. Cuts to youth and services, however, stayed on the table, with Cespedes’ office pointing to data indicating the people predominantly involved in shootings are over 18 years old. 

When his proposal eventually made it to City Council, councilmembers rejected it, instructing Cespedes and his team to have more conversations with Oakland residents and service providers. The department is funded by Measure Z, a parking and parcel tax, and council members were concerned that reducing funds to at-risk and formerly incarcerated youth would violate the original mandates of that measure. In June, Cespedes and his team will present a new plan and budget for the department. 

David Muhammad, the executive director of the Oakland-based National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, believes that the department’s roadblock to restructuring is simply a lack of funds. Muhammad coordinates a network of 32 similar city offices of violence prevention across the country and, he says, all of them are underfunded. He likens the pushback Cespedes is contending with to two people trying to park their cars in a small parking lot and bumping into each other. 

“Really, we’re not mad at each other. We should be mad at the design of this parking lot,” he said. “That’s what happened here. There is not enough money to go around.” 

This year, the department received just $1.17 million dollars from the city. Just over half of its funding comes from the city’s general fund, and Measure Z, which provides the rest. 

Sarai Crain, the deputy chief of violence prevention for Oakland, feels similarly to Muhammad about community members’ response. She understands the gender-based violence advocates’ frustrations in particular, as she remembers leaving City Council meetings in the years before she worked for the city feeling discouraged by officials’ lack of awareness about violence affecting women and girls. 

“Everyone is taking shots at the DVP and I’m like, ‘You do understand that there’s been less than one percent allocated towards gender-based violence and you have an entire council that has voted to pass these budgets year after year?” she said following the council’s decision.

Still, Cespedes said, the rejection was difficult and an indication of just how daunting his department’s mandate is compared to the city’s investment in its success. At present, Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention doesn’t even have a physical office. 

“We’re couch-surfing,” Cespedes said with a gentle laugh. “So, the Department of Violence Prevention is a bit of an illusion. It exists in concept and spiritually and it’s a great idea,” he said, “but the bottom line is that the department wasn’t provided resources.” 

New investments on the horizon?

The department’s money problems could soon change. 

After a historic summer of uprisings against police violence, calls for “defunding” the police gained unprecedented traction. In July, Oakland’s City Council established a “Reimaging Public Safety Task Force” to respond to calls for the city to consider alternatives to relying on police in responding to certain situations. The task force, which consisted of 17 residents, recently approved 89 ideas for trimming the police budget and investing in non-police services that could help alleviate violence. Some of the proposals could end up funneling millions of dollars to Cespedes’ department. Before the end of June, the City Council will have weighed the task force’s recommendations as part of its process of approving Oakland’s next two-year budget.

Oakland also expects to receive up to $192 million in federal assistance as a part of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, which passed the Senate in March. And this month, in the wake of high-profile mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, the White House announced its intention to spend $5 billion over eight years on community violence intervention programs across the country. 

Cespedes now sees an unusual moment of opportunity for Oakland, where the city could be in a position to be able to invest in both responding to acute instances of violence and applying preventative measures, rather than being forced to choose between essential services. 

“If we look at what’s been successful across the world…” he said, right before the ding of a new text message interrupted him. He glanced at his phone. “Another homicide,” he said, shaking his head. He then finished his thought: “…it’s where those two things become aligned.” 

Amalya Dubrovsky is a reporter in the East Bay, where she grew up and calls home. Follow her on Twitter @amalyadubrovsky.