A pinball-machine collector, East Palo Alto’s new police chief has an open-door policy

 

Police officers in East Palo Alto were surprised to see their new chief, Albert Pardini, in before 7 a.m. on his first day of work. But when he was in just as early the next day to get to know both the night and day staff, they quickly realized things were going to be different.

“He seems like someone who isn’t afraid to get his hands in the dirt,” said Veronica Barries, the East Palo Alto Police Department’s administrative officer, who reports directly to Pardini, the first permanent police chief in over a year. “The interim chiefs were great but it really affects morale,” she said.

Changes are foremost on Pardini’s mind. Appointed on Nov. 12, the new chief spent more than 12 hours at the office on his first day, meeting his new team and discussing his plans to help deepen ties between the community and the police — at a time when the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in New York and Missouri, respectively, have highlighted the deep mistrust of the police, especially by racial minorities.

The 52-year-old San Francisco native spent 32 years at the San Francisco Police Department, including as captain of the Bayview precinct. He also led the citywide narcotics and vice department, the major crimes department and the San Francisco International Airport’s patrol and bomb dogs division.

In Bayview, Pardini found that community outreach was one of the most effective strategies to combat crime. He held weekly community meetings to hear community concerns and teach residents how to provide effective tips. He plans to do the same in East Palo Alto. He also plans to meet each officer individually to hear his or her concerns, an open-door policy already being welcomed by the force.

“What happened in the police department last week? Nobody knows, and they should know,” said Pardini. “The community having the ability to communicate with the police department is just huge.”

He is interviewing candidates to fill open slots and relieve overworked officers. And he is revamping the department’s policy manual, as part of his effort to reorganize a department that has lacked consistent leadership and guidance.

In the past year, since the last permanent police chief Ronald Davis left to pursue a high-profile federal job in Washington, East Palo Alto has had four interim police chiefs, leaving the department in a state of flux.

“For any police department, it’s important to have specific goals and objectives and they (the East Palo Alto Police Department) don’t have any,” said Mark Raffaelli, the interim police chief who immediately preceded Pardini. “They just go out there [and don’t know what they’re trying to achieve].”

Raffaelli hopes a new permanent chief will bring stability to the small police force that is trying to serve East Palo Alto’s 30,000 predominately Latino and black residents.

The East Palo Alto Police Department, which is currently short-staffed, has only 37 sworn officers — one officer for every 700 people. That’s not all that different a ratio from that of East Palo Alto’s neighboring cities, like Menlo Park and Palo Alto. But while violent crime in East Palo Alto is down compared to the early 1990s — in 1992 there were 39 murders — it increased by 26 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to FBI data. In 2013, eight people were killed in East Palo Alto. Menlo Park and Palo Alto had no murders.

Father Lawrence Goode, of the St. Francis of Assisi Church, has lived in East Palo Alto for 12 years. He says the police needs to accept responsibility for combating the city’s drug cartel problem and not look to others to solve the problem.

A previous chief gave me the “impression that it was a federal problem and there was nothing they could do,” Goode said. “My question is then: who do we talk to? We’re concerned.”

Of Pardini, Goode says he is cautious but hopeful. He hopes the new chief will look to the community as an asset to the police.

Building community

At a recent community meet-and-greet at the East Palo Alto City Council Chambers, Pardini stepped out to take a phone call and was followed by community members eager to speak to their new chief. Pardini spent almost 20 minutes talking to them, before herding them back inside.

Pardini sees such interactions as an investment. He recalled in an interview one of his greatest successes with community policing. During his time at Bayview, Pardini received an anonymous tip about a drug dealer. The caller described where the person dealt the drugs, what car he drove and the clothes he usually wore.

Pardini sent two of his officers to the area on bicycles and they were able to go up to the dealer’s car without him noticing them. They caught him with “three big bags of the drugs on his lap, breaking them up into smaller packages for hand-to-hand sales.’’

Community outreach

A large part of getting the community to trust in officers comes from instilling a sense of transparency into the workings of the police department, Pardini said.

In addition to the weekly outreach meetings he is holding, Pardini is developing a new website, where community members will be able to find a detailed breakdown of what the police department did during the week and what they hope to tackle in the week to come.

Pinball machines and outdoor movies

Pardini’s open-door policy is extensive. A person can literally walk into the department and ask for a meeting, and if he is available, he will take it.

A father-of-three, he is warm, soft-spoken and laid back.

Pardini’s open-door policy applies to his personal life as well. Neighborhood kids can often be found in his garage playing one of his vintage pinball machines — he has five from the 1970s. Some nights, he gets together with his neighbors to show movies on an outdoor screen in his driveway. On one recent evening he showed the 1968 classic “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

East Palo Alto’s Interim City Manager Carlos Martinez, who was responsible for appointing Pardini, said he was so taken with Pardini’s holistic approach to policing, that he extended a conditional offer to him the day after meeting him for the first time.

“The person that I was looking for was someone who was willing to involve the community and someone who saw the police department as a source [of strength and support],” Martinez said, “There were many exceptional candidates but [I wanted someone] as passionate as he was.”