Statewide and nationwide, crime has been on the decline since the 1980s. And in one of California’s historically most violent cities, that drop has been even sharper. While the state experienced a 49 percent decline in overall crime between 1986-2008, the plunge in East Palo Alto was 62 percent. According to a report released today by the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, the city has accomplished this change despite a growing population and a shrinking police force. How?
Chief Ronald Davis, who’s headed the police force since 2005, says the scarcity of resources has actually forced the police department to think more about where their energies should go. For one, Davis says, it “required the police department of engage in the community more and get them involved.” The scarcity also meant being more strategic–aiming programs at those demographics at risk for committing crimes, like those returning to the city from prison. That effort included building a reentry center for the city (sort of a day-reporting place for parolees) in collaboration with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Yet East Palo Alto still ranks sixth in California for violent crime, and Davis says the city has considerable gains yet to make. It still ranks 6th in the state for violent crime, though homicides have gone down and the city looks to close out the year lower than in any recent years.
Shootings, considered a better measure of violence levels than homicides (as Davis says, shootings versus homicides are “a difference of an inch or two”) have gone down somewhat but remain high for a city of East Palo Alto’s size. Davis says that in 2005, the city recorded 130 shootings. As the year comes to an end in a few weeks, that number for 2010 is currently at 38.
Davis says the Berkeley report is part of the solution: simply knowing what the actual trends, demographics, and numbers are for victims and perpetrators of crime makes for better decision-making.
Sarah Lawrence, one of the report’s authors, says that’s the reasoning behind the project, “getting the city and citizens on the same page and understanding what’s actually happening.”
Amidst constant news of crimes and violence, it’s easy to forget that Palo Alto has come a long way–as has the nation as a whole. It’s fairly often over the course of crime reporting to hear the general trend that crime has declined greatly over the past couple of decades. Actually looking at the numbers, however, is striking: in East Palo alto, 42 people were murdered (in a city of under 25,000); this year, when the city’s population has grown to over 33,500, there have been 4.
“People get very concerned about increases in crime,” Lawrence says of crime rates nationwide. “Consider this, it’s half as high as it was.”