Crime in the city of East Palo Alto is a shadow of its former self. But even the shadow is menacing.
In a new report [PDF] released today, the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice examined the state of public safety in a community once maligned as a murder capital. East Palo Alto, situated next door to Stanford University, became infamous in the early 1990s for its astronomical violent crime rate.
The researchers, working out of the UC Berkeley law school, found much to celebrate.
East Palo Alto’s violent crime rate has shrunk by 56 percent since 1986. The city’s property crime rate is about a third of what it was 23 years ago.
Similarly, reported rates of burglary, auto theft, aggravated assault, robbery, rape and homicide have fallen precipitously.
“This community needs to realize they’ve come a really long way,” Sarah Lawrence, program director at the Berkeley center and co-author of the study, said in an interview Tuesday. “I think, overall, there’s a positive story here.”
In addition to charting successes, the report details at length how East Palo Alto remains dangerous in certain places and at certain times of day.
The city’s violent crime rate is double California’s statewide average. Blacks represent 20 percent of the population, but are 52 percent of homicide victims.
“There are concentrated neighborhoods within East Palo Alto where there is a disproportionate amount of crime and those neighborhoods, like in most cities, tend to be neighborhoods of color,” Lawrence said.
Firearms are central to East Palo Alto’s problems with violence.
Police calls for service involving a firearm increased during the past decade, according to figures from the report. From 2005 through 2007, East Palo Alto police dispatched officers on 1,634 such calls, up 49 percent from the 1,093 calls from 1999 through 2001.
The East Palo Alto Police Department is short on officers, the report found, compared with its peers.
In 2008, the department had 29 sworn police officers, or nine for every 10,000 residents. Other California cities with similar-sized populations on average employed 14 sworn officers per 10,000 residents; cities with similar violent crime rates to East Palo Alto averaged 16 sworn officers.
This isn’t a new problem. As the Peninsula Press reported earlier this year in a profile of East Palo Alto Police Chief Ronald Davis:
The 47-year-old top cop prides himself on resourcefulness. That’s a good thing considering his budget hasn’t increased in more than five years and his department is based in a set of trailers and industrial buildings five blocks from the city center.
Besides staffing numbers, the Press found the police department had its own concerns before Davis took over.
The police department was rife with internal problems: Two officers had been indicted on criminal charges, five were on administrative leave, and there was a scathing grand jury report that outlined departmental deficiencies ranging from facilities problems to lack of managerial training.
Lawrence said she attributes a share of the improvement to Davis’ community policing efforts, and the ties he has formed with the community he serves.
In 2007, East Palo Alto voters approved a parcel tax to fund law enforcement. "I haven't been able to grow, but I've been able to prevent layoffs," Davis said of the extra taxpayer support.
That same year, the police department signed a contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to open a reentry center in the city, helping recently released inmates gain work skills and employment.
The report shows "the community policing efforts in East Palo Alto has been effective," Davis said. "But it reinforces, despite this tremendous effort, we still have inordinate levels of violence. There's still a lot of work to do."
The benefit of the police department’s programs has not been quantified. And with crime retreating across California the past 20 years, it is often unclear what deserves credit.
“The general understanding is that there is no one single thing that is causing crime to drop,” Lawrence said. “And it’s probably the combination of several factors. What people don’t really know is the relative weight of those factors, which one is the most important.”