SAN FRANCISCO — Cursed by a flourishing drug trade and violent gang wars, the small Bay Area city of East Palo Alto recorded the highest murder rate in the nation during 1992.
Outpacing such perennial homicide leaders as Oakland and Washington, D.C., the city of 24,000 near Stanford University had 42 murders last year--about twice the number logged in 1991.
"It's not a shock, but it's very disappointing," homicide Detective Tom Alipio said Monday. "We'd certainly rather be known for something other than murder."
East Palo Alto's 42 killings are the equivalent of 175 slayings for every 100,000 residents. By comparison, Oakland had a record-setting 174 murders in 1992, but they amounted to a lower rate of 46 deaths per 100,000 residents. Washington, D.C.--which led the nation in murder rate in 1991--recorded 448 homicides last year, or 75 slayings per 100,000.
The city of Compton has held the title of murder-rate capital in the past, but 1992 brought a welcome decline in homicides there. Police said the city of 80,000 people ended the year with 63 murders, for a rate of 79 per 100,000.
"We're down about one-third over last year, and we're very happy about it," Compton homicide Detective John Swanson said. "We've still got our share of crime, but murders have been way down since the (gang) truce in April."
In East Palo Alto Monday, officials attributed the upswing in homicides to an increasingly violent drug trade that lures buyers from throughout the Bay Area. Located 30 miles south of San Francisco, the city straddles the busy U.S. 101 freeway and sits near the foot of the Dumbarton Bridge, a link with the east side of the bay.
"People just drive into our city, pick up their drugs and drive out, and you get your murders along the way," said interim City Manager Mike Bedwell. More than half of the homicides were narcotics-related, statistics show, and 70% of the victims were involved in criminal activity when they were killed.
As the battles over drug-selling turf have turned bloodier, the Police Department has suffered because of budget problems that have plagued the city since it incorporated a decade ago, Bedwell said. The 37-member police force is so overburdened that the FBI and officers from neighboring cities frequently help out.
"There are a lot of good things about East Palo Alto, and we're trying to get some redevelopment going" Bedwell said. "But it's going to be tough to combat bad news like this."
Murder is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Among African-American males in their teens, it is the top killer.