Crime in nearly every category decreased in East Palo Alto in 2014, according to recently released federal data, largely due to recent police crackdowns on gang activity.
According to FBI data released in September, both violent and property crime in 2014 were at their lowest point for at least the past decade. Violent crime plummeted 64 percent from 2013, and property crime dropped five percent over the same period. Murders dropped from seven to five per year. So far in 2015 there have been four, including one last week.
The only crime category to increase in 2014 was motor vehicle theft, up 18 percent from 130 incidents in 2013 to 153 in 2014.
Arson in East Palo Alto also dropped, although a “human or technical error” caused the FBI data to indicate that there had been zero arsons in 2013, according to Elizabeth Lam of the East Palo Alto Police Department. The actual number of arsons in 2013 was nine, and there were six in 2014. Lam said, “there should not be any other errors,” although she noted that the numbers do change occasionally if crimes are reclassified or reported at a later date.
The crime data comes as East Palo Alto experiences an increase in housing prices and development — some of which is related to employees from nearby Facebook moving in — prompting some residents to wonder whether the city is putting its violent history behind itself for good.
“I don’t see as many funerals now,” said Justin Graze, a postal worker whose family moved away from East Palo Alto in 1994 because of the violence but returned in 2013. “They’re cleaning up the streets,” he added. “You don’t see nobody standing outside of their home no more selling drugs.”
Although the city still struggles with drug and gang-related issues, as well as high levels of high school truancy that residents say leads some youths to commit crimes, residents and police credit the decrease in crime to a crackdown on gang violence led by the former police chief, Ronald Davis, that resulted in indictments of 14 gang members last year.
Today, those gang crackdowns have largely “completed their objectives,” said East Palo Alto’s current police chief, Albert Pardini, who is now focusing on the kind of community engagement typified by the weekly foot patrols he takes through the city’s neighborhoods to visit with residents.
“Call tips to the police have increased 70 percent over the past year,” Pardini said on a recent patrol. “The community is calling us sooner … we’re getting involved in things when they’re at the dispute level and they’re not escalating into violent outbreaks.”
But residents also note that even with the drop in crime, the city still faces disproportionately high rates of violence compared with elsewhere in San Mateo County. The violent crime rate in East Palo Alto is nearly three times greater than that of neighboring Menlo Park and is nearly five times greater than that of Palo Alto. And the burglary rate in East Palo Alto is nearly double that in both Menlo Park and Palo Alto.
Gabriel and Mayra Sanchez have felt it personally. “Today, we got a call from our alarm company because somebody tried to get inside of our business. And two times somebody tried to vandalize our home,” Gabriel Sanchez said, sitting outside of the couple’s taqueria on Clarke Avenue.
“There is no single cause or group that is responsible” for property crime, said Pardini. But he noted that an increase in motor vehicle break-ins and thefts has coincided with an increase in homeless people relocating to East Palo Alto from other parts of the Bay Area like San Jose that have recently conducted sweeps.
A recent spate of car break-ins occurred near East Palo Alto levee access points that abut homeless encampments. “We can’t definitely say that every one of the [car break-ins] was the responsibility of a homeless person,” Pardini said, “but there are some indications that was what was going on.”