A police headquarters is not the kind of place where one usually expects friendly conversation. At first glance, the East Palo Alto Police Department on quiet Demeter Street seems no different.
A row of plastic chairs lines the back of the sunless lobby, its occupants looking less than elated to be here on a Wednesday afternoon. But when police Chief Albert Pardini steps into the room, clad in full uniform, one of the men slouched against the wall straightens up. “Hey, Chief,” he calls out with a smile, “I haven’t seen you since the last City Council meeting.”
As the two strike up a conversation, they sound like old friends catching up. Pardini knows the man by name, and the man relates his latest problems: soaring rent and an impounded car. Pardini listens intently, then promises to talk to another officer who may be able to help.
Such a conversation would have been unthinkable in East Palo Alto just a decade ago. It’s hard to believe that this is the city that used to be called the ‘Murder Capital of the United States,’ when distrust and bitter resentment between civilians and police ran so high that many crime victims avoided calling the police at all.
Since the turbulent, high-crime days of the 80s and 90s, the city has undergone a slow but steady transformation, one that culminated in an incredible milestone this year: the city has not seen a single homicide thus far in 2017. But behind the statistic lies a decades-long struggle against crime and the fear it brings with it, waged not only by public officials but by residents themselves.
Distrust and division
Ruben Abrica, vice mayor of East Palo Alto, has lived in the city for almost 40 years, and has been involved in community volunteering and government for almost as long. He was on the City Council in the 1992, when the city saw homicides peak at 42 killings in one year, as reported by the Los Angeles Times.
“The crack cocaine epidemic had hit us pretty hard,” Abrica recalls. “There were a lot of shootings, a lot of people killed. Half of them were not even from East Palo Alto … [but the killings] happened here and we got stigmatized in a way.”
Plagued by violent crime and surging gang activity, the city suffered from another, more unsettling issue: a growing divide between residents and the police. According to Abrica, former police chief Ron Davis (who held the position from 2005 to 2013) would often host community meetings after violent crimes were committed and implore residents to come forward with any information.
“We’re a small town, and often people [would] know who did it,” Abrica says. “And at the time many people didn’t want to say anything … even though what someone had done was not right, to them the police was still worse.”
First steps toward change
Faced with this combination of high crime and mistrust, and fearful of the possibility that San Mateo County authorities would remove the city’s autonomy unless it managed to provide for its residents’ safety, City Council officials and police reached for a solution — and found one in community policing, a philosophy that emphasizes cooperation between police officers and the people they protect.
“Little by little … the chief of police [became] more visible in the community,” Abrica says. As a first step, the police divided the city into sections and set up meetings at which residents from each area could raise their concerns with officers.
When current police chief Al Pardini took over the department, however, he implemented what was possibly the most significant change: walking around and getting to know people.
“One of the first goals that I really wanted to get the community working on was knowing who their police officers were,” Pardini says. “There are only 36 of us in the city, including me, so there’s no reason you wouldn’t know us all by our first names.”
In addition to attending community events and visiting schools, police officers began spending more time on the streets, talking to residents they passed and visiting them at their homes, according to Pardini.
“Public safety — some percentage of it is psychological,” Abrica says. “It’s how you feel. Do you feel that people are looking after you or not? … If the officer knows your name … especially in a small town, it’s going to be a different relationship. It changes the dynamics.”
“If the officer knows your name … especially in a small town, it’s going to be a different relationship. ”
— Ruben Abrica, vice mayor of EPA
Pardini has even extended this outreach to an unlikely group: Black Lives Matter.
“It was 15 months ago, July of 2016, when the Black Lives Matter was running very strong,” Pardini recalls. “They had a meeting around the corner and invited us to it, so I came and spoke and [heard] what people had to say.” At the end of the meeting, Pardini says, a group of young activists announced that they wanted to have a march. “I’m like, ‘Okay, would you like us to go with you? March with you?’ And they’re like, ‘Yes! We would.’” And so it happened that a group of police officers accompanied local Black Lives Matter activists in their protest.
As police officers became more accessible, community members increasingly cooperated with the police, and crime began to drop.
“One of the things I noticed when I first got here was the tip line — it didn’t get a lot of activity,” Pardini says. “But as time went on and I was out meeting people and they were meeting the officers …[calls] went up about 70 percent.”
Witnesses who initially called anonymously began to reveal their names. In fact, according to Pardini, after a serious assault case in January of this year, so many witnesses wanted to give statements that the police department had to call in more units to the scene.
Both Abrica and Pardini associate this newfound police-community cooperation with the city’s astonishing decline in crime. According to the Palo Alto Weekly, the city’s violent crime rate dropped by 64 percent between 2013 and 2014, and crime has continued to decline at a rapid pace since then, leading to a 35-percent reduction in 2016 and this year’s notable lack of homicides.
But while Abrica and Pardini both dismiss gentrification and changing demographics as significant factors in this change, some East Palo Alto residents point to those shifts as the reason behind the decline in crime.
“I think it would just be higher incomes [driving the decline],” says Allison Salinas, a resident of East Palo Alto and a junior at Paly.
Salinas and junior Brianna Moreno-Alcocer agree that the demographic makeup of their city has changed, and they share the concern that gentrification could eventually undermine progress in crime reduction by creating a class of unemployed, homeless, and frustrated former residents.
Looking back, thinking ahead
Residents and public officials alike can agree on one thing: As crime has declined, daily life has undergone a transformation, becoming safer, easier and more comfortable.
Salinas says her parents have grown less fearful and allowed her greater freedom. “They’re a lot less protective about … me walking by myself,” she says. “Before … they wouldn’t even let me go out at all, like not even for the ice cream man.”
Abrica and Pardini have witnessed a similar transformation; Abrica has seen the city’s parks fill with people, while Pardini regularly speaks with residents who have begun to walk their dogs in the evening — something they were once afraid to do.
“It feels more like a community,” Salinas says. “You can literally strike up a conversation with anybody, like the people at the bus stops and the people at the cart for chicharrones and chorizos.”
Though residents and their representatives agree that the city still faces significant problems, everyone seems willing to take a moment to celebrate the past years’ victories and look at their revitalized city with pride.
Ruminating on the ways in which daily life here has changed, Abrica brings up the National Night Out, an event in which residents block off streets and spend time outside with neighbors and emergency personnel. To him, this yearly celebration encapsulates the city’s progress.
“There’s something magical about closing off a street and being right in the middle of the street, a party going on, and the police come by, and the kids run off and get in the police car,” Abrica says. “[It’s] another way of feeling a little more safe — that you can just be out there.”