Guest Post: Numbers And Nonsense In Oakland’s Search for Public Safety

Make Oakland Better Now! has started a 10 part series on strategies for making Oakland better, and we will be continuing with that soon.  But others have good ideas as well, and we want to share some.   The ideas in this guest post are those of Steve Spiker. A self-described urbanist, technologist, photographer and husband and father, almost new home owner, he is the Research Director for Urban Strategies.    His blog, where this post first appeared, is here.  

Oakland is once again talking about data and facts concerning crime, causes and policing practices, except we’re not really. We’re talking about an incredibly thin slice of a big reality, a thin slice that’s not particularly helpful, revealing nor empowering. And this is how we always do it.

Chip Johnson is raising the flag on our lack of a broad discussion about the complexity of policing practices and the involvement of African-Americans in the majority of serious crimes in our city, and on that I say he’s dead right, these are hard conversations and we’ve not really had them openly. The problem is, the data we’re given as the public (and our decision makers have about the same) is not sufficient to plan with, make decisions from nor understand much at all.  Once again we’re given a limited set of summary tables that present just tiny nuances of reality and that do not allow for any actual analyses by the public nor by policy makers. And if you believe that internal staff get richer analysis and research to work with you’re largely wrong.

When we assume that a few tables of selectively chosen metrics suffice for public information and justification for decisions or statements, we’re all getting ripped off.  And the truth is our city departments (OPD esp.) do not have the capacity for thoughtful analytics and research into complex data problems like these.  And this is a real problem.  Our city desperately needs applied data capacity, not from outside firms on consultancy (disclosure: my current role does this sometimes for the city) but with built up internal capacity.  There is a strong argument for external, independent access to data for reliable analysis in many cases, but our city spends hundreds of millions per year and we don’t have a data SWAT team to work on these issues for internal planning.  Take a look at what New York City does for simple yet powerful data analytics that saves lives, saves money and makes the city safer.  This is what smart businesses do to drive better decision making.

Data, in context, with local knowledge and experience, evidence based practices (those showing success elsewhere) and a good process will yield smarter decisions for our city.

Data tables do not tell us about any nuances in police stops, we don’t know how these data vary across different neighborhoods nor anything about the actual situations around each stop- the lack of real data that shows incident level activity makes any real understanding impossible.

For example, the data report shows that White stops yield a slightly higher proportion of seizures/recoveries, so logic says why don’t the OPD pull over more White folks if they lead to solid hits at least as often?

Back in 2012 the OPD gave Urban Strategies Council all their stop report data to analyze, but there was no context nor any clear path of analysis suggested making it near impossible to produce thoughtful results, nor was it part of our actual contract.  But the data exist and should be used by the city to really understand how our police operate, the context of their work and the patterns that lead to meaningful impacts rather than habits that are not reflected upon and never questioned or changed.

It is not our city’s job to just do the work, process the paperwork and never objectively review meta level issues.  According to our Mayor “Moving forward, police will be issuing similar reports twice a year”. We need data geeks in city hall to support our police and all departments and in 2014 we need to be better than data reports that consist of a set of summary tables alone.  Pivot tables are not enough for public policy.

If you’re still reading- the same problem arises with relation to the Shot Spotter situation- the Chief doesn’t think it’s worth the money, but our Mayor and CMs want to keep it- we now have the data available for the public but we’ve not really had any objective evaluation of the system’s utility for OPD use- and we’ve certainly not had a conversation in public about the potential benefits of public access to this data in more like real time! Just looking at the horrendous reality of shootings in East Oakland over the past five years makes one pause very somberly when considering how much the OPD must deal with and how much they need more analytical guidance to do their jobs better and more efficiently.


For a crazy look at shootings by month for these five years take a look at this animation– with the caveat that not all the city had sensors installed the whole time and that on holidays a lot of incidents in the data are likely fireworks!  Makes me want to know why there is a small two block section of East Oakland with no gunshots in five years- the data have been fuzzed to be accurate to no more than 100 feet but this still looks like an oasis- who knows why?

Make Oakland Better Now!

OakTalk Here is the blog of Make Oakland Better Now!, an Oakland community grassroots group of a grass-roots group of voters, volunteers, and policy advocates committed to improving the City of Oakland by focusing on public safety, public works, and responsible budgets. Founded in 2003, we’ve researched, lobbied, and successfully campaigned for a number of new, impactful policies, including the city’s Rainy Day Fund, Measure Z and Operation Ceasefire.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Kevin Lee Thomason

    The solution is simple. Basically replicate the dynamics that occurred during the Harlem Renaissance. Shame on those who wish to “attack” flatlands pain as if we are some military/mathematical problem.

    I live in Sobrante Park, and 50 years of “promises” and “hope” from myriad “fix Oakland” structures have left us with broken promises and no hope.

    I honestly think the Panthers were the last folks who got stuff done back here. I am starting a non-profit that will do sake things. Educate, empower, lift us from inside.

    Much respect to all, and I am not referring to any if the approximately 5000 “fix Oakland” NGOs, which collectively harvest nearly 10 times our city budget. The “fix Oakland economy” is around nine billion per year. I actually think that it more than the economic PRODUCTION of Oakland.

    1. Kevin Lee Thomason

      We are basically going through the same economic death throes Detriot went through: deindustrialization, led to violence and drugs, then corrupt democratic machine politicians conspired with LE to treat a social problem as a crime problem.

      Since there is no viable economic production, this led to police budgets in the 40 to 50 percent of city budget range. In the 1960’s – it was around 5 percent.

      1. Kevin Lee Thomason

        Lol – to answer your question – seriously – it is because I live in that little spot you are talking about. You are talking about the back edge of Sobrante, I think.

        I have been trying to explain the dynamics to people for years.

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