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Oakland sees homicide total spike in rough 2011

By Terry Collins

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Jan. 8 2012 1:45 p.m. MST

In this Jan. 4, 2012 photo, Karla Pineda, cousin of murdered 5-year-old Gabriel Martinez Jr., is consoled by an unidentified man who wished not to give his name, at a memorial for Martinez in Oakland, Calif., at the exact location where he was murdered in late December 2011. Martinez was the third youth murdered in Oakland since August 2011, and the 110th homicide in Oakland in 2011.

Paul Sakuma, Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. — Staring at a colorful display of balloons, flowers and candles at a makeshift memorial in East Oakland, Todd Walker estimated he went to at least 50 of the funerals for this city's 110 homicide victims in 2011.

He attended one more on Friday, this time for Oakland's last homicide victim of the year, 5-year-old Gabriel Martinez, Jr., who was shot and killed near his father's taco truck a week earlier.

"Safe streets should be the main priority of this city, period! There are no more excuses," said Walker, a community activist who is often asked to attend services by the victims' families, pointing to a large banner with Gabriel's image at the memorial site that said "Alto a la violencia" — stop the violence in Spanish.

This rough-edged port city that struggles for a reprieve from the violence saw its homicide total hit triple digits last year for the fifth time in the past six years. There were 95 homicides in 2010, a five-year low that brought promise and some optimism.

But a number of the slayings in 2011 sparked community outrage and national attention. A man was shot in broad daylight in November near the Occupy Oakland encampment outside City Hall, and a beloved restaurant owner in East Oakland was fatally shot in April during an early morning attempted robbery.

Gabriel, known by his family as "Little Gabrielito," was one of three little boys felled by bullets. Three-year-old Carlos "Carlito" Nava was gunned down while being pushed in a stroller by his mother in August.

Last month, Hiram Lawrence was taken off life support after being shot in the head while in his father's arms during a rap video shooting; he died nearly three weeks shy of his second birthday.

"Ain't no tomorrow for (Gabriel)! Ain't no tomorrow for little Carlito down the street or baby Hiram! Do something for these kids who are alive so they can live to see tomorrow," said Walker, also a well-respected area youth football coach. "How many more babies are going to have to be shot and killed?"

In addition to the spike in homicides, violent crime in Oakland increased by 6 percent in 2011. Property crimes also increased by 10 percent compared to 2010. The city's first homicide this year occurred Wednesday when a man was shot and killed in East Oakland.

Last year was a tumultuous for Oakland in other ways, as well. Popular Police Chief Anthony Batts resigned in October, citing frustration over his department's scant resources. That came before police dismantled two large Occupy Wall Street encampments and arrested hundreds during violent clashes with protesters that drew both worldwide attention and scrutiny.

Embattled Mayor Jean Quan, who faces two recall campaigns, has been criticized by residents and civic leaders for her handling of the Occupy protests.

And the killings of the three children in a four-month span have put a particularly harsh spotlight on crime in her city.

"They have struck a nerve and touched the city's heart and reignited a lot of community action to seek justice," Quan said. "These deaths involving children seemed to have broken the barrier in terms of folks communicating with the police and hopefully something positive will come out of it."

Longtime Oakland Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente said a poor economy, gangs, drugs and robberies were the primary causes of homicides last year. He has grown increasingly frustrated as city leaders were at odds with each other last year over proposed gang injunctions, curfew and anti-loitering ordinances to help combat the crime.

Oakland's crime rate runs counter to national trends: Preliminary FBI crime figures for the first half of 2011 show violent crime dropping across America — nationally, homicides dropped nearly 6 percent, robbery 8 percent and assaults 6 percent for the first half of last year.

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