Oakland police chief details plan to stop city's deadly violence - but it could be controversial

ByKen Miguel and Phil Matier via KGO logo
Saturday, October 8, 2022
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Chief LeRonne Armstrong tells ABC7 News that the only way to stop the murders is to get the guns off the streets. But the way he plans to do that promises to be controversial.

OAKLAND (KGO) -- More than 100 murders and counting. That's the grim statistic coming out of Oakland this year.

It's on pace to be the most murders in a decade ever since 2012 when 127 people were killed. This will make the third year in a row with a triple-digit death toll.

RELATED: Oakland police making changes to crack down on gun violence after 9 killed in 9 days

ABC7 News Insider Phil Matier sat down with Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong to ask how can police stop the violence and build a better Bay Area.

Much of the violence on the streets of Oakland is coming from guns - ghost guns to be specific. Guns that are easily assembled and sold and bear no traceable serial numbers.

These are automatics. These are high-velocity weapons.

They are killing tools.

Chief LeRonne Armstrong tells ABC7 News that the only way to stop the murders is to get the guns off the streets. But the way he plans to do that promises to be controversial.

RELATED: Oakland gun violence continues to rise despite new efforts to combat it

It all comes down to enforcement and accountability - two issues that often invoke political backlash.

"New laws have obviously come out over the last couple of months that are actually helpful. One in which that we believe is really helpful is now new law that requires these slides or uppers or lowers these pieces that these weapons come into, to now need to have serial numbers," Armstrong said.

Here's a transcript from part of that interview:

Phil Matier: Chief. Let's get real. Somebody that's buying a ghost gun is not worrying about registering it or the penalties for it. Right?

Chief Armstrong: Right. I mean, I think the issue was that law enforcement officers were having a difficult time determining what we would charge people with. So prior to these new laws, ghost guns really didn't have much governance. And so I think these new laws at least give us some leverage to be able to leverage some federal laws against those that possess these guns.

Phil Matier: So what would the penalty be if you had an unlicensed ghost gun? Realistically.

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Chief Armstrong: Realistically, you're talking about possession of just a firearm. But then we're talking about not having the charge of possession of a registered firearm. All firearms need to be registered and serialized. And we wouldn't have that charge to be able to bring forward against a person.

Phil Matier: But even then, even then, because I'm playing realistic here. That's still a non-violent crime, right?

Chief Armstrong: Yeah.

Phil Matier: Okay. So it's not going to mean you have to stay in jail for a while?

Chief Armstrong: No, it means you lose the gun, you get a court date, and you go back out. It would still be a misdemeanor charge.

Phil Matier: So carrying a killer weapon, unregistered is a misdemeanor?

Chief Armstrong: Yes.

Phil Matier: On the same grounds, as let's say, you know, shoplifting or some stuff like that?

Chief Armstrong: Yeah.

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Phil Matier: How does that solve the problem?

Chief Armstrong: Well, it doesn't for us for law enforcement. And these are dangerous encounters. Every time police officers come into contact with someone who is armed with one of these weapons it is a potential risk to their lives and that individual's life. So we're talking about high stakes, these guns should be charged at a higher level. There's no reason to have them.

Phil Matier: How much does one of these guns go for about $400? $400 cash upfront?

Chief Armstrong: Yeah, pretty much cash or either merchandise. Sometimes people are exchanging goods that they've come through, you know, some other exchange, whether you're stolen goods, or some that they've gotten in some way, and then exchanging them for ghost guns.

Phil Matier: You've called for reinstituting the traffic squad in Oakland PD. We're not talking about jaywalking, ticketing jaywalkers, or failure to lead. You want those guys and gals to be making traffic stops out there on people you suspect are carrying guns?

Chief Armstrong: Yeah, Both people that we suspect are carrying guns, but also addressing the significant traffic safety issue that we have in the city of Oakland.

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Phil Matier: That, however, could be a hot political issue. It has been in the past, where people say that police are targeting minority communities.

Chief Armstrong: Well, what I'm going to bring back is focused stops. We're going to focus on those that we believe are carrying firearms. And then we're also going to focus on those that are committed egregious traffic violations.

Phil Matier: What do we do now? What do you do now? Do you have the cops to actually pull out this plan?

Chief Armstrong: Yes. So we've grown a department over the last couple of months, we've had two additional academies graduate, and we have another academy that's going to graduate at the end of October. So as our numbers grow, we'll be able to redeploy units into some of these specialized units. And the first unit that we're going to grow is this new traffic safety unit that will be deployed by the end of this month.

RELATED: Oakland considering expanding use of license plate readers as crime surges

Phil Matier: Are you concerned? Or have you talked with city hall? Are you concerned about political blowback?

Chief Armstrong: I'm not. I've talked to the mayor, she and I are in agreement that we have to enforce the laws. We have to go out there and be proactive about enforcing certain laws that are making our city unsafe.

Phil Matier: So you think the public is on your side?

Chief Armstrong: I really do from all the emails and communications that I've gotten. People are asking me, Chief, where are your teams? Why aren't you out here doing more?

Phil Matier: Chief, how much of the gun violence is gangs? And how much of it is random?

Chief Armstrong: The vast majority of the violence that we're seeing is group and gang violence, targeted individuals that are engaged in conflicts across our city. We know that groups and gangs are targeting one another throughout our city and our ceasefire strategy that works on this every single day. We are out there trying to address this. I think the data supports it. Since last week, when I made some shifts in resource deployment, we've recovered over 30 firearms in nine days and arrested over two dozen people so far. And that is a pure focus on only those involved in gangs and gun violence.

Phil Matier: If you got a message to the people of Oakland, what would it be messages?

Chief Armstrong: The violence needs to stop. But the police can't do it alone. We need the community's help. We need the judicial system's help. We all have to be unified in addressing gun violence.

That of course is one of the big challenges in policing in Oakland. Many people in the community are too afraid to help. They worry if they report violence, they will become the next victim of retaliatory violence. The only solution, says the chief, is to get those guns off the streets of Oakland.