OAKLAND — Robberies shot up to historic levels in Oakland last year, recently released FBI data shows, and the crime remains one of the city”s most intractable public safety problems even though it started dropping sharply this year.
Not only was Oakland the nation”s robbery capital for the third consecutive year in 2013, the city also endured its worst year for robberies in at least three decades.
Oakland recorded 4,922 robberies last year, according to the FBI”s annual crime report. That amounted to nearly 14 robberies per day. By comparison, there were 1,095 robberies recorded in San Jose last year and 4,202 in San Francisco — two cities with more than double Oakland”s population.
Oakland”s robbery tally last year also was its highest since at least 1985 — the earliest year for which the FBI posts data. The city”s previous high was 4,610, recorded in 1992 during the apex of the crack epidemic.
Even if this year”s 36 percent decline in robberies holds, Oakland, based on last year”s data, would only drop from first to third in robberies per capita among major U.S. cities, FBI data shows.
“It remains a huge challenge for us,” Chief Sean Whent said. “It absolutely is still hitting the community hard.” The most consistently hard-hit area is along International Boulevard, he said.
Whent said robberies started climbing in 2011 as gangs that had previously made their money selling drugs on street corners turned to robberies to profit off the lucrative market for stolen cell phones.
The robbery spike peaked in the first half of 2013 and robberies began falling back to historical norms this year. The city is on pace for its lowest robbery tally since 2010 when it ranked second in the nation in robberies per capita.
Whent credited this year”s decline in robberies both to good police work and outside forces, including an improving economy and the inclusion of kill switches on new iPhones. As robberies drop, gangs aren”t returning en masse to street corner drug dealing, but they are committing more identity thefts, Whent said.
Several other Bay Area cities have seen robberies drop this year, although the trend isn”t universal. Robberies were down 24 percent in San Francisco as of the end of September and 27 percent in Richmond as of the end of last month. However, robberies were up 7 percent in San Jose during the first half of the year.
Six Bay Area cities with more than 100,000 residents placed in the top 50 nationwide for robberies per capita, including San Francisco, Richmond, Vallejo, Berkeley and Antioch.
Oakland led the nation, averaging one robbery for every 82 residents last year, according to the FBI report. The city”s robbery rate was 26 percent higher than the second-ranked city, Cleveland, and 44 percent higher than the fourth-ranked city, Detroit.
Oakland”s robbery rate has had several peaks and valleys over the past three decades, FBI data shows. Whent said police have played a key role in the most recent decline by making frequent arrests, bringing aboard more robbery detectives, reorganizing the department to have more of a local focus and educating residents how not to become victims.
He also said the department”s Ceasefire program, which is geared toward reducing shootings, has helped too because many of the violent gangs it confronts are also active in robberies.
Franklin Zimring, director of the Center for Studies in Criminal Justice at Berkeley Law School, wasn”t sold on how much Oakland police had done to impact robberies other than making key arrests. Because robbers tend to commit many crimes, taking 10 of them off the street could result in 200 fewer robberies, he said.
“You can expect movements up and down that can be pretty substantial even if the structural conditions of policing or crime control are stable,” he said.
Former San Francisco Police Chief Tony Ribera said it was difficult to analyze such wild swings in robberies, but said police work surely was a factor in the recent decline.
“I think Oakland police deserve some of the credit,” he said. “Not all of the credit but certainly a tip of the hat.”
Staff writers Robert Rogers and Robert Salonga contributed to this story. Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.