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Under reformer police chief, East Palo Alto crime rates drop

By Joshua Adam Hicks | 27 Oct 2010

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East Palo Alto Police Chief Ronald Davis speaks with Pastor Paul Bains of Saint Samuel Church of God prior to a City Council meeting. (Photo: Josh Hicks)

In East Palo Alto, the police chief has to be inventive. Ronald Davis is known for that.

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. “When you don’t have a lot of resources, then the strategic deployment of those resources is a must,” Davis said. “I don’t have the luxury of putting 20 cops on a corner.”

In recent years, Davis’s department has landed $8 million in federal grants, launched a program that helps parolees find jobs with the California Department of Transportation, and worked with federal agents to bring down the upstart Taliban street gang — a sting that led to 50 indictments. Crime rates have also dropped drastically for the city labeled the nation’s murder capital in the early 199os.

Davis has implemented community policing programs that focus as much on conflict intervention as arrests. He also holds regular “neighborhood beat meetings” and “Chats with the Chief” to talk with residents.

“He has great ideas,” said Detective Angel Sanchez, vice president of the East Palo Alto Police Officers Association. “He sometimes doesn’t have the resources for them, but he finds ways to make them work.”

East Palo Alto had more issues than chart-topping crime rates when Davis took over in 2005. 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.

East Palo Alto City Council member Peter Evans said Davis “may have the best intentions” but the need for strong oversight of the police department remains. The city dissolved its public safety commission years before Davis became the chief. That committee has yet to re-emerge. “By and large, he’s a decent person,” Evans said of Davis. “But no matter how decent you are, it’s not right to have an $8 million budget and no oversight.”

Evans said he sometimes votes against Davis’s pet projects just to let the chief know he doesn’t have free reign. Case in point: Evans was the only council member to vote no on a contract with Community Crime Prevention Associates, a private group that helps the city develop strategies for using its public-safety money.

Davis, a Philadelphia native, is the son of a police captain. He came to East Palo Alto from the Oakland Police Department, where he served as a patrol officer, police academy director, patrol commander, head of criminal investigations and inspector general. He is no stranger to the dangers of the streets. A cocaine dealer once fired a revolver at him during an undercover narcotics sting. The shot missed, but it left powder burns on his face.

Oakland awarded Davis with a medal of merit for organizing a “reverse drug sting” that tackled the demand side of the drug equation, targeting buyers who ventured into low-income neighborhoods to buy cocaine.

The chief’s progressive image stems from his time serving on two federal oversight teams that worked to improve the Detroit and Washington, D.C. police departments. He also writes articles on racial profiling and serves as a reform expert for the U.S. Department of Justice.

East Palo Alto ranked among the worst cities in the nation for crime and violence rates when Davis took over in 2005. There were 15 homicides and more than 130 shootings. One year later, an officer was shot to death while a 14-year-old Explorer Scout was doing a ride-along.

Since 2005, the city has never seen more than eight homicides in a year. But Davis isn’t satisfied.

“Our violence rate is still inordinately high, and the community deserves better,” he said. “There is no reason why East Palo Alto can’t be like Menlo Park, Atherton, or any other community that can go a year or two without a homicide. That, to me, would be success.”

To that end, Davis is prepared to implement a new set of initiatives. The East Palo Alto Police Department will be teaming with the Ravenswood School District to launch an anti-truancy and curfew program that aims to keep kids off the streets and in school. Davis also plans to partner with core law-enforcement groups and social-service providers to personally deliver a message for gang leaders: the authorities are on to you; take advantage of the resources and change your ways.

“That to me is community policing,” he said. “Looking at it more holistically and not as some program that you start and finish. Because a lot of these programs will come and go with whoever is in charge.”

Davis isn’t going anywhere yet. He was among the finalists this year for police chief of New Orleans and Seattle. But he lost to big-city candidates both times.

Seattle and New Orleans had concerns about his inexperience in leading large urban police departments. East Palo Alto has only 39 officers and 30,000 residents.

Davis feels there may have been other reasons why didn’t get the jobs. “I represent reform,” he said. “I represent an expert that deals with issues of race, misconduct, oversight, and high crime rates. To hire me is an indictment of the organization.”

Davis, who lives 15 miles from East Palo Alto in the East Bay area, said he isn’t looking for greener pastures.

“My testing (for the job) was more a response to opportunities of a lifetime than a desire to leave,” he said. “As far as running around and looking in the want ads for police-chief jobs or jumping every time a head hunter calls me, that’s not the case.”

A search firm recently called Davis to gauge his interest in becoming San Jose’s next police chief. He decided not to apply.

Davis isn’t resting on his laurels. He knows that one incident can ignite a crime wave. Violence erupted in 2007 after two teens, both Pacific Islanders, were shot during a dispute in which relatives had tried to intervene. One of the girls died.  In the aftermath, a dozen shootings occurred in three weeks.

Davis met at a church with leaders of the Pacific Islander community. The opposing sides agreed to a cease-fire and hostilities ended.

“Nothing can be taken for granted,” Davis said. “We need to have positive interaction every day. It’s like a marriage – just continual work.”

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