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As Oakland's murders rise, the mayor wants planned cuts to the police reversed


2020 saw nearly 30% spike in homicides across the nation. While still below historic highs, that's the largest one-year increase in murders since America started keeping national records. This year, in many cities, the uptick in killings has continued to match or even surpass last year's deadly surge. Oakland, Calif., is among the hardest hit. The rise in gun violence and homicides there has left many residents angry and fearful. And Oakland's mayor is now calling to reverse planned cuts to the police department. From Oakland, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports on one family's grief.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: A city of 425,000, Oakland is fast closing in on 130 homicides so far, already more than last year's 109 murders. And that itself was a 40% jump from 2019. Recent murders include a 28-year-old man gunned down near a popular park in broad daylight while trying to stop a car break-in, and a security guard and former cop fatally shot protecting a local TV news crew out reporting on crime, and a teenage girl shot driving home after getting her hair braided.

NINA HATCHER: This one just came today. I don't know who's sending them or if someone's picking them from their yard.

WESTERVELT: Oh, those look like from a florist, yeah.

HATCHER: Yeah, they look like from a florist.

WESTERVELT: Fresh flowers keep showing up along the metal fence outside Nina Hatcher's home in east Oakland, a small gesture from neighbors, friends or strangers. They're in memory of her 15-year-old granddaughter, Shamara, who was murdered in October not far from here. For a family grasping for answers and solace, Nina says the flowers help a little.

HATCHER: They keep appearing, which is really, you know, blessings...


HATCHER: ...Shows just how, you know, loved Shamara was.

WESTERVELT: Family and friends all say Shamara had a wide, infectious smile and a relentlessly positive spirit.

DAISHA RELERFORD: She always smiled, you know? That smile light up my world. I always smiled with her even though I was going through stuff. She made my day, you know?

WESTERVELT: That's Shamara's classmate and buddy, Daisha Relerford.

RELERFORD: Yes, I was her first best friend.

WESTERVELT: Daisha says Shamara liked basketball, acting, dancing and rap. They'd crank out TikTok posts. In keeping with the medium, they were, at turns, goofy, raunchy and silly.


5IVE: (Singing) Who going to pull up when it's time to slide?

RELERFORD: She'd always be like, let's make a TikTok, best friend. I'm, like, OK. Like, you know, that was her thing.

CHALINDA HATCHER: She was only 15, so it's just - she was just hitting the mark of falling into that teenage life.

WESTERVELT: That's Shamara's mother, Chalinda Hatcher. She's sitting on a plastic bench in the backyard of her modest east Oakland home. There's an apple tree. A few tomato plants in wooden boxes are stubbornly sticking around past their fall peak.

HATCHER: She really liked being happy all the time and bringing your spirits up. Like, if she thought you was sad, she would give you a hug or like to uplift spirits because she didn't like sadness.

WESTERVELT: It'd been a long day for Shamara the night she was killed. She'd gone to school and then to get her hair elaborately braided in singles just before her Sweet 16 birthday.

HATCHER: Something she had been wanting for the past couple of months. But we had been just having her do her natural stuff. But, yeah, she was finally happy to get her hair done. And her uncle went to go pick her up.

WESTERVELT: That uncle, Joshua Hatcher, was driving down International Boulevard when two men in a car raced up, driving erratically and cut them off. The uncle went around them and turned on Bancroft Ave. to try to get away. They were about 10 blocks from home. There was no exchange of words, no exchange of middle fingers. But the strangers in the car gave chase.

HATCHER: They just followed him down Bancroft and got back in front of them. And as he tried to get back in front of them, they shot into his car. And that's when they struck Shamara.

WESTERVELT: A bullet hit Shamara in the head. Shocked and near panicked, her uncle tried to hold her up while racing to the nearest hospital. She was pronounced dead shortly after arrival. Shamara Young was Oakland's 109th homicide of the year.

HATCHER: I'm still trying to figure out, why would you shoot into a random car? And the innocence couldn't get no worse. She wasn't affiliated in a gang. She didn't live by the gun or none of that kind of stuff. She was just a teenager trying to graduate and live her life.

WESTERVELT: Chalinda says she hasn't heard from the detective assigned to her daughter's case since right after the murder. The Oakland PD says it has cleared 44% of homicides this year, but that includes killings from other years solved in 2021. Like the majority of killings here, Shamara's death remains unsolved. That's painful and ironic, her mom says, because Shamara was kind of obsessed with TV crime shows. She would stay up late watching them and muse about wanting to become a forensic technician to help cops crack cases.

HATCHER: I mean, the girl loved solving crime shows. All she wanted to do was become one of those people who solved murders and stuff like that.

WESTERVELT: Crime isn't a new problem in Oakland. But as in many other American cities, gun violence and death have escalated here during the pandemic. The surge prompted Oakland's mayor, Libby Schaaf, this week to reverse plans to divert funding from police to social services. While saying she still supports planned efforts to remove police from some non-violent 911 calls and an intervention program called Ceasefire, Schaaf told a video press conference she'll be asking city council to reverse funding cuts scheduled to take effect next year, and for the city to move to hire more police.


LIBBY SCHAAF: There is nothing progressive about unbridled gun violence. This is what Oaklanders want, a comprehensive and effective approach to safety. And that includes adequate police staffing.

WESTERVELT: Shamara's mom says she strongly supports that call for more cops with caveats, including that more officers should come from and live in the city.

HATCHER: I do not think that we need to take the police off the streets because these streets are absolutely nuts. But it needs to be more of the right policing. The wrong police out here can make it worse. So we need the right ones getting these guns off the streets, getting these bad people off the streets.

WESTERVELT: Oakland, Chalinda says, needs to do a lot better.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Oakland.


Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.