An epidemic of murders in Oakland, California, has claimed hundreds of lives in the past decade, and the victims’ families often face discriminatory treatment by police, devastating financial burdens and psychological trauma with inadequate government support, says a report from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Berkeley Law).
Researchers from the school’s International Human Rights Law Clinic found that surviving family members often were victimized a second time as law enforcement and other agencies treated them with indifference — and even hostility. The impact of this “impunity” falls most heavily on African Americans in low-income neighborhoods, the report found.
Over the past decade, the researchers said, Oakland police made arrests in just 40% of murder cases when the victim was black, compared to 80% when the victim was white. An unsolved killing often compounds the family’s trauma, and with at least 2,000 Oakland murders currently unsolved, the impact radiates throughout the community. But surviving family members often do not receive the financial support and mental health care to which they are legally entitled.
The author of the report calls this impunity — the idea, commonly used in the field of international law, that the failure to bring perpetrators of a violent crime to justice creates continuing trauma for survivors.
For families in Oakland, the report says, the term reflects a troubling reality in the aftermath of murder: “lackluster police responsiveness and often disrespectful and discriminatory treatment, checkered availability of crime-victim services and restrictions on who can take advantage of them, and stigma and safety concerns that not only often go unaddressed but are exacerbated by the criminal justice system’s cramped approach to justice.”
Lorrain Taylor lost her twin sons, Albade and Obadiah, to a shooting in 2000, when they were 22-year-old college students. In an effort to overcome her grief and depression, she founded 1000 Mothers to Prevent Violence, which organizes grief circles and provides a range of other support to families of murder victims. Taylor shared with the Berkeley Law researchers her stories of police apathy and careless investigations.
“I have worked with some truly good, caring police officers, but in other cases I don’t think they care about our pain or our recovery,” Taylor said in an interview. “We think the police should treat every single case as if it was their own child. If you can’t do that, you’ve probably missed your calling.”
Victims’ rights as human rights
The Berkeley Law clinic’s new report, “Living with Impunity: Unsolved Murders in Oakland and the Human Rights Impact on Victims’ Family Members,” describes a range of failings by law enforcement which, taken together, amount to a systematic violation of victims’ human rights.
The findings in Oakland would almost certainly be found in other U.S. cities with high murder rates, a history of segregation and discrimination, and strained police-community relations, said report author Roxanna Altholz, a Berkeley clinical law professor and co-director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic.
“Impunity is having disastrous consequences for Oakland families,” Altholz said. “The police can’t even manage to notify them of the death of their loved one or return their phone calls. Although the U.S. federal government allocates $3 to $4 billion each year to help crime victims and more than 40% of the city’s budget goes to the Oakland Police Department, the government is failing to deliver on the promise of justice by implementing polices that recognize the inherent dignity of all persons and respect their human rights.”
During the three-year study, Altholz led a team of researchers that conducted in-depth interviews with 15 family members related to 16 Oakland murder victims, plus more than three dozen experts. They also evaluated hundreds of pages of public records collected by the California Victim Compensation Program in Alameda County, which coordinates compensation to crime victims under the administration of the County District Attorney’s office.
One of the family members who contributed to the clinic’s report was Richard Livingston Jr., a veteran social worker. Livingston grew up in the Bay Area deeply influenced by the values of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. But last week, just before the holiday that celebrates King’s birthday, Livingston was marking a more tragic anniversary — the 2015 murder of his son, Richard Dejion Livingston III.
The young man and his girlfriend, Alexis Randolph, were gunned down on a Friday afternoon in East Oakland in a crime with no obvious motive. In an interview, his father recalled gut-wrenching chaos: Six hours passed before he learned from family members that his son was dead.
Meanwhile, rumors spread like wildfire, and some of Richard Livingston Jr.’s friends thought that he, and not his son, had been killed. He raced to the morgue to see his son’s body, but he was barred from entering. He saw his son only six days later, when the body was released to the funeral home.
At no time did any police officer, prosecutor or social worker inform Livingston of his rights, or the support available to him as a crime victim.
Rickey, as Livingston called his son, was the second of seven children and his oldest son. Rickey had a son of his own, just a year-and-a-half old. As the weeks passed with no break in the case, Livingston’s sense of overwhelming grief did not pass. Why couldn’t the police solve the case? He couldn’t eat, and he began to lose weight.
“This is shocking to the mind,” Livingston said. “It’s paralyzing.”
Because of his professional experience, he knew how to find help. “I had a lot of support,” Livingston recalled, “but I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who don’t…. Too many people whose family members have been killed don’t have access to mental health care.”
A breakdown of trust
Today, Livingston, Taylor and others see a corrosive cycle: violence leading to trauma, and trauma leading again to violence. Victims don’t know where to turn. If they work with police, they are at risk of retaliation when a killer is still at-large. But the Oakland Police Department has been troubled for years by reports of officer misconduct, including harassment of people of color and excessive use of force. Even the best detectives are overwhelmed.
“Most people are not going to put their lives on the line to serve as witnesses because there’s not enough protection for witnesses,” Taylor said.
Such frustrations echo through the new report. Many of the victims said Oakland police never notified them of their loved ones’ deaths. Others said they were treated rudely or even threatened by police at the crime scene, or that detectives did not keep them informed about the investigation. One mother quoted in the report said that, in her time of overwhelming grief, police seemed “harsh” and “negligent.”
While California law provides a range of possible support for surviving victims, police can block aid if they conclude that family members were involved in crime related to the murder or that they are not cooperating with the investigation. One mother cited in the report said she was ruled ineligible for government support because her murdered son had once served time in jail.
“Most people are not going to sign up for victims of crime funds because it’s done through the district attorney’s office,” said Livingston. “They don’t want to deal with the district attorney. They’re afraid to do that.”
“What we heard consistently from the family members of murder victims is that witnesses are afraid to cooperate with police investigators and that their communities do not feel protected by law enforcement,” Altholz said. “Community groups provide some very important support, but there are enormous gaps. We need better support, and support that meets the most urgent needs of the victims and is provided to them consistently.”
The Oakland Police Department declined to comment on the report.
Recommendations for reform
“Living with Impunity” calls for a more comprehensive and effective approach to supporting the families of murder victims. Among the proposals: better treatment of families at the crime scene, improved communication during the investigation, and more robust outreach to ensure family members have access to support and aid, even if they have been incarcerated or on probation.
The authors urge that the decision to provide victim-support services be made independent of the police.
“This timely research will finally put a face to a seemingly faceless population — thousands of family members who have lost a loved one and who are victims of systematic suffering,” Taylor said. “Impunity is clearly unethical, but I had no idea that it is also illegal. And it is a violation of human rights.”
The International Human Rights Law Clinic at Berkeley Law designs and implements innovative projects to advance the struggle for justice on behalf of individuals and marginalized communities through advocacy, research and policy development. The clinic develops collaborative partnerships with researchers, scholars and human rights activists worldwide. Students are integral to all phases of the clinic’s work.