OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Oakland must reinvest in a lauded program to reduce gun violence and support communities at high risk of homicides, following years of defunding and stripping its resources, according to a new audit by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform.

The Oakland City Council learned Tuesday that an audit of Ceasefire, a gun violence reduction program, found former city leaders were part of its fundamental mismanagement beginning in 2016. Current Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao said in a Tuesday statement that she plans to immediately restart Ceasefire with full staffing, saying "The buck stops with me."

The program was widely credited with reducing homicides in Oakland by 38% from 2013 to 2019, but following a 2020 defunding, a rise in homicides has been seen over time. Most major U.S. cities saw a jump in gun violence during the pandemic, according to the institute in the audit.

The audit reviewed Tuesday notes issues which began under previous leaders, including former Mayor Libby Schaaf and fired police chief LeRonne Armstrong. Beginning in 2016, each element of Ceasefire’s strategy was “significantly watered down” as leaders stripped its resources, and in 2020, the city shifted away from focusing on people at highest risk of gun violence, auditors said.

“Oakland's violence problem remains largely consistent with prior analysis in 2011-2012, 2016-2017 and 2020-2021, which found a hyper concentration of risk among justice involved, black and Latino adult men, with social connections to identifiable street groups and gangs in Oakland,” the institute reported. It also noted a growth in local gun violence committed by people who do not live in Oakland.

Ceasefire's communications with people in neighborhoods known for being at risk of gun violence is down, auditors said. This is due to the former mayor’s administration cutting resources over time and a shift in focus to solving crimes, rather than addressing factors of gun violence in the city’s communities.

The institute recommended reorganizing the city’s Department of Violence Prevention under one structure, as it currently “lacks strategic focus and intentionality and needs to be reorganized with an understanding of the difference between prevention and intervention as it relates to gun violence.”

“The theory of change needs to be developed and designed based on the data and who is at the very highest risk of gun violence,” auditors wrote.

Oakland is advised to increase “relentless outreach” while holding violent perpetrators accountable to provide justice to victims and families and stem retaliation. To do this, the city should fund and fully staff the Ceasefire unit, the auditors said.

Faith in Action East Bay pastor Bill Dixon told the council Tuesday he is not paid for the work he does with Ceasefire on Oakland’s streets to counsel people and is shocked to see how much funding it was stripped of.

“You don’t see the young men who call and ask me things late at night,” he said. “This can never happen again."

Oakland Police Department’s 2021 organizational shift under the former police chief — who drove creation of the Violent Crime Operations Center — prioritized solving past crimes over yielding sustainable crime reductions, auditors added. As a result, the homicide clearance rate declined from 50% in 2020 to 35% in 2022.

Therefore, Oakland should disband the center and combine the Ceasefire unit and data on citywide firearm surveillance under one commander, the auditors recommended.

“The focus on solving past crimes appears to contribute to the creation of new crimes, ultimately straining the OPD's resources and exacerbating the challenge of solving crimes effectively,” the institute said. It recommended that the Assistant Chief of Police manage the Ceasefire unit, and that Mayor Sheng Thao should restart Ceasefire performance review meetings in February and make clear who is responsible for gun violence reduction.

These recommendations come as Oakland leaders prepare for a mid-cycle budget adjustment following last year’s $360 million deficit. City staff will next prepare a report on how much the audit's recommendations could cost.

Thao has faced calls for a recall despite only having been in office for one out of the four years the audit focused on, and having fired the police chief who oversaw a gradual increase in homicides. Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan said the city council voted to restore Ceasefire funds which former mayor Schaaf cut in 2020, only for the former chief to assign officers away from the program.

“Ceasefire is an evidence-based strategy that achieved success in reducing shootings, homicides, recidivism and victimization for those at highest risk,” Thao said in a statement. “We’re moving beyond just saying that we’re implementing this strategy to actually doing it. Violent crime in Oakland did not reach crisis levels overnight. Unfortunately, working in silos and losing focus on what’s actually worked in Oakland have taken its toll, and it’s time to get this train back on track.”

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