“We call it the slow dance,” said Kevin Grant, who heads the Oakland Street Outreach program. Recruited and led by Grant, three crews of five men patrol not just MacArthur Boulevard, but violent hot spots across East, Central and West Oakland. They go out Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, starting as early as 5 p.m. and often staying until 2 a.m.
The “slow dance,” Grant said, is a gentle and gradual means of conversation by which he and his teams establish trusting relationships with gang members, drug dealers and others on the streets, trying to convince them to consider another path.
“Some of us have been in that lifestyle ourselves, so we know all the players,” Grant said. “We bring that street cred, and we make it clear: We ain’t snitches, and we ain’t police.”
Grant said he and his crews need to be as easily identified as the neighborhood ice cream truck, so they wear white jackets and baseball hats printed with the Measure Y logos and the words, “For a Safe Oakland.”
Though the program works in cooperation with the Oakland Police Department and nearly every other local law enforcement agency, Grant said his priority is “the loved ones,” a term he uses for men and women on the street in place of potential trigger words like “cuz” and “homeboy.”
“We have to make it clear our first loyalty is to the loved ones,” Grant said. Many of the people he and his crews work with can be skittish, he said, as a life spent afraid of both the law and the lawless leaves them slow to trust others.
An 18-year-old East Oakland resident who for safety reasons asked to give his name only as Michael said he met Grant at a midnight basketball game.
“I was basically doing nothing,” Michael said. “I didn’t really know what I could do. There weren’t any jobs you could see. I guess I didn’t really care.”
In a long conversation, Grant steered him to a job fair, Michael said, from which he gained a part-time job as an event promoter. Michael said he enjoys the work and is beginning to brainstorm events of his own.
The outreach program was adapted about a year ago from a “cease-fire” model seen in Chicago and Boston, according to Andrea Youngdahl, director of Oakland’s Department of Human Services.
“Kevin is such a unique person,” Youngdahl said. “People feel like he can resonate with where they’ve been in life and not judge it, but present some other options. He’s able to walk between both worlds and weave it all together.”
What Grant hopes to do with the program next is follow through with the connections he makes.
“We mostly work at night, now,” he said. “But you want somebody to go get a job, you have to help them do that during business hours, you know? So in phase two, we’re blessed to be getting a case worker for each crew to start doing that follow up.”
Grant said he also hopes to recruit at least one Spanish-speaking member for each crew.
The whole team will undergo four days of training the first week of August, Grant said, focusing on ethics, emergency protocols and how to safely enter conflicts.
When the Tribune reported in June that the serious crime rate in Oakland was down 15 percent below 2008 levels, police were quick to name Grant and his program for playing a crucial role in violence suppression.
“I think his work is invaluable,” Acting Police Chief Howard Jordan said. “Kevin and his staff, they do things we’re unable to do because we are the police, and people don’t necessarily react the same way to him as they do to us.”
Grant’s teams help bridge the gap between the community and the police, Jordan said, because “when we have problems, potential retaliation problems, his staff is able to go and talk directly to people and get them to calm down.”
“It’s hard to quantify the program’s impact,” he added. “We don’t track how many fights or disputes Grant and his team prevent. That doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. It’s also always been a problem finding the right people. That’s probably one of the biggest challenges, that and continuing funding with the city’s potential budget issue here. But it’s something we want to keep doing.”
Grant. an East Oakland native, grew up on the city’s streets and struggled with the same dearth of resources, distrust for authority and personal history of crime as those he now works to empower.
After getting out of federal prison, where he had been sent for drug-related convictions, Grant began doing outreach work in 1992.
“I took that road in life,” he said, “and since I’ve been home, I’ve been blessed to know a lot of people who helped me get back on my feet. Now when I try to give aid to the loved ones, I’m helping myself while I’m helping them, because I can’t be hypocritical. I have to be what I ask them to be.”