OAKLAND -- On the same day that a federal judge approved the appointment of a compliance director to oversee the embattled Oakland Police Department, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley spoke to members of the Piedmont League of Women Voters about "Crime and Punishment in Alameda County."
O'Malley was the guest speaker at the league's annual holiday luncheon, which was held at a residence Dec. 12. Her talk touched on everything from the state of the Oakland Police Department to gang killings to the sex trafficking of minors.
Program chair Carol Brown introduced O'Malley to about 60 guests who overflowed the spacious living room. O'Malley thanked the "large and engaging crowd" and said she was excited to be at the lunch.
"I promise I won't depress or scare you," she said. "The newspaper feels like a police blotter because crime gets so much attention."
Although there are "beautiful things happening in Oakland," she said that crime is "out of control."
She said a big concern is the skyrocketing murder rate, especially among women.
"There have been 12 domestic violence homicides this year," O'Malley said. "Four teen girls have died, including two in shootings last month."
O'Malley said Oakland needs help -- and money -- as crime is spilling over the borders into Piedmont, San Leandro and Berkeley. Police from those cities, as well as the Sheriff's Department and California Highway Patrol, already help patrol the streets of Oakland.
"Crime in Oakland is like cancer; we need chemo to stop it," O'Malley said. "Alameda (County) ranks first in the state and third in the nation in the number of violent crimes."
The District Attorney's office has appealed to the U.S. Attorney General for help and is soliciting funds from a variety of sources, including the federal offices of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Office on Violence Against Women.
"We are trying to be creative in asking for money in a multifaceted way," O'Malley said.
Another big initiative that O'Malley is pushing is improvement in the gathering and recording of forensic evidence in sexual assault cases.
"We have a backlog of DNA evidence," said O'Malley, adding that New York City has no such backlog. "We are now putting our DNA units into police labs, although sometimes they don't like it; we want to look at every DNA kit."
The District Attorney's office is also working with former prisoners to reduce recidivism.
"All agencies are committed to helping former prisoners find their path," O'Malley said.
That includes helping them find employment and offering substance abuse counseling.
"Substance abuse is why a lot of people commit crimes in the first place," she said.
O'Malley talked about another initiative that she spearheaded that has become a model for the state: restitution for victims that is paid by the perpetrator.
"Last year, victims (in Alameda County) received $26 million in restitution," O'Malley said. "That's the cost of crime, and the victims were bearing that cost."
The Family Justice Center in downtown Oakland is another brainchild of O'Malley and the first such center to be funded by the federal government. The center houses 35 agencies that help victims of family violence, sexual assault, elder abuse, sexual exploitation of minors (human trafficking) and child abuse. The center also oversees five shelters and three rape crisis centers.
"Before the Justice Center opened, people had to go to 25 different locations to find social services; it didn't work," O'Malley said.
The Justice Center not only responds to issues of crime, but also works in tandem with job training, computer training, money management and psychological and emotional counseling. While many people think that sexual exploitation of minors is a problem overseas, it is happening all over Alameda County and throughout the United States, according to O'Malley.
"Nineteen thousand victims of human trafficking have been seen at the Justice Center," O'Malley said. "The police are often the portal after the minor gets arrested for prostitution."
Voters spoke clearly against human trafficking and sex slavery in November when they passed Proposition 35 by 81.8 percent.
"The initiative increases punishment for the exploiters and provides restitution to help restore the lives of the victims," O'Malley said. "Some of the stories these kids tell us are horrendous."
O'Malley wants to divert these minors from the juvenile justice system through support programs offered at the Justice Center and stop them from being portrayed as "prostitutes."
"I'm always on message about trafficking of minors," O'Malley said. "We don't refer to our kids as 'prostitutes.' "
Following her talk, O'Malley took questions from the audience. Piedmont Vice Mayor Margaret Fujioka noted that burglaries in her city are up 22 percent and theft up 17 percent over last year.
"How can we work with police and the District Attorney to get crime off the streets?" Fujioka asked.
O'Malley listed some ways to prevent neighborhood crime such as cameras on streets (which she noted was "controversial"); installing a stronger front door that can't be kicked in; and simple steps such as ensuring doors and windows are locked and not leaving items in your car.
"Oakland Chinatown businesses all have cameras, and crime has plummeted," said O'Malley, who's not a "huge fan" of street cameras, but thinks Neighborhood Watch is effective.
"If you see something, be bold, call the police, but don't try to intervene," she said. "Criminals are looking for someone who isn't paying attention. For example, if someone's talking on their cell phone, put the phone away."
Another guest was concerned with armed holdups on Piedmont Avenue and the easy access to guns.
"I'm the first to stand in line for gun control, but I'm not hopeful," said O'Malley, who added that police try to track the origin of guns, whether from Arizona or Montana, as it's illegal to bring the weapons over state lines.
She said her fear is that home or business owners take the law into their own hands and shoot a robber or intruder.
"To take someone's life, even in self-defense, takes a psychological toll."
She said her office estimated that 70 percent of shootings in Oakland are gang-related and retaliatory.
"Gangs are challenging in Oakland," O'Malley said. "They change from corner to corner with lots of subgroups."
Responding to another question, O'Malley said her office works with police and social services to promote good parenting and keep kids in school and out of trouble.