Living with Impunity: Unsolved Murders in Oakland and the Human Rights Impact on Victims’ Family Members

Living with Impunity report coverAn 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 new report from Berkeley Law’s International Human Rights Law Clinic.

Released January 23, 2020, “Living with Impunity: Unsolved Murders in Oakland and the Human Rights Impact on Victims’ Family Members” presents work by clinic Co-Director Roxanna Altholz and other researchers who 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.

Oakland has been one of the most violent cities in the country since the 1990s. Over the last decade, approximately 76% of the city’s homicide victims were black. During that time, Oakland police made arrests in just 40% of murder cases when the victim was black, compared to 80% when the victim was white. As a result of high rates of violence yet low arrest rates, the Oakland Police Department has over 2,000 cold homicide cases on its books.

For families in Oakland, the report describes 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.”

The report uses the concept of “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—to expose underexamined impacts of these unsolved murders on the families of homicide victims.

The “Living with Impunity” report calls on federal, state, and local authorities to invest in the well-being of family members and ensure better treatment and improved communication by the police during the criminal investigation. The report urges officials to provide all family members, including individuals who are on probation, access to wraparound services and long-term care to specifically address the complex needs of family members of homicide victims.

News stories

Unsolved Homicides, Family Trauma, KPFA, 3/17/20

“Like Crawling on Broken Glass”: The Aftermath of Gun Violence, California Magazine, 2/25/20

UC Berkeley study highlights effects of unsolved Oakland homicides, Daily Californian, 1/27/20

Oakland families of homicide victims say police add to trauma, Los Angeles Times, 1/25/20

Do Oakland police violate human rights law?, The Crime Report, 1/24/20

For families of Oakland murder victims, police practices add to trauma, UC Berkeley, 1/23/20