Counting Homicides in Oakland

With a new year, reporters and government officials will begin making assessments of the previous year’s crime statistics and draw conclusions on police effectiveness and the overall well-being of city residents. But how many homicides were there in a year? At least in Oakland, this seemingly simple question can have many different answers depending on whether the count includes police shootings, others ruled by homicide investigators to be justified, and the interaction of intersecting jurisdictions.

As of Dec. 29, the East Bay Times reported by their count that there had been a total of 86 homicides in the city in 2016 and 93 by that point in 2015. In the last days of 2016, another person was killed in Oakland, 24-year-old John Nicacio on Dec. 30, bringing the total number of Oakland homicides in 2016 reported by the East Bay Times to 87.

But when the city of Oakland reports its final homicide figures, it will report that there were at most 85 homicides in 2016. According to city data, only 83 homicides were reported for purposes of the FBI’s Universal Crime Reporting in 2015. That’s because 10 of the 93 homicides were found to be legally justified use of force, including six shootings by police officers.

BART police released this surveillance photo of a suspect in the high-profile murder of Carlos Misael Funez-Romero on board a BART train at West Oakland station on Jan. 9, 2016, a homicide that is uncounted in official crime statistics for the city of Oakland.

And neither count includes the fatal shooting of Carlos Misael Funez-Romero on board a BART train at West Oakland station on Jan. 9, 2016. Nor do they include 38-year-old Omar Gomez-Saldana, who was killed at Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline near the Oakland Airport on Dec. 8, 2015, by a teen trying to keep their previous sexual relationship secret. Nor a body found wrapped in plastic in an industrial area in West Oakland on Sept. 29, 2015.

In the BART and shoreline park cases, despite happening in Oakland, neither happened in the jurisdiction of Oakland police. The shooting on board the BART was investigated by the BART Police Department, while the shooting at Martin Luther King Regional Shoreline was investigated by the East Bay Regional Park District Police Department, which also oversees other large parks in Oakland such as Redwood Regional Park and Lake Temescal. The person found dead in West Oakland was determined to have been killed in Richmond and the body dumped in Oakland, so Richmond police took over the investigation.

In a case where a murder happens outside of Oakland police jurisdiction and the body is moved, the case probably shouldn’t be counted as happening in Oakland. However, it is difficult to understand why homicides happening on BART property, on the highways or within the city’s several regional parks shouldn’t count toward the official homicide count. While there have only been two of such instances over the last two years, not including them still can paint an incorrect picture of homicide trends in Oakland.

Including those cases, there were 94 homicides in Oakland in 2015 and 88 in 2016. While on its face this may seem like a drop, six of the homicides included in the 2015 figure are shootings by police officers — five by Oakland police and one by Emeryville police. Without police shootings, the homicide rate over the last two years is effectively unchanged.

But that didn’t stop Mayor Libby Schaaf from citing figures that included police shootings to claim there’s been a reduction in homicides in a recent interview. While police data does show that overall violent crime has been declining in recent years, homicides have remained relatively steady and have been more frequent in the second half of 2016.