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Affluent Cities Help Their Neighbor Turn Back Crime : Police: Officers from nearby departments and the CHP make East Palo Alto a law enforcement model.

January 08, 1994|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. — Not long ago, drug dealers armed with automatic weapons controlled the streets of this small, poverty-stricken community.

The Police Department--understaffed and ineffective--was paralyzed by investigations into brutality and corruption. By 1992, violence was so rampant that East Palo Alto was branded the murder capital of the nation, with 42 killings in a city of fewer than 24,000 people.

In adjoining cities such as Palo Alto and Menlo Park, affluent residents found spent bullets in their yards and talked of building traffic barriers at key intersections to hold back what they saw as a tide of ghetto crime.

Now, in a remarkable transformation, East Palo Alto has become a model of intensive policing and regional cooperation that some leaders hope can be adopted in high-crime neighborhoods elsewhere in the state.

A continuing police crackdown using officers donated by Palo Alto, Menlo Park, San Mateo County and the California Highway Patrol has cut the homicide rate in East Palo Alto by 86%. Two years ago, there were eight slayings on one block alone; in 1993, there were six killings in the entire city.

In his State of the State Address this week, Gov. Pete Wilson praised the joint effort and proposed training 500 new CHP officers who could be sent in the same fashion to other communities racked by violence.

"Swift response and a united community worked in East Palo Alto, and it can work around our state to reduce the fears felt by too many Californians," the governor said.

Leaders of the East Palo Alto campaign were pleased by the governor's recognition of their efforts but uncertain how well their program would translate to larger communities, such as Los Angeles. The long-term answer, they stressed, is not just locking up criminals but attracting businesses, jobs and training.

During the police crackdown, East Palo Alto has tried to create a new civic atmosphere and embarked on an economic development program. With the help of Palo Alto and Menlo Park, the city has sponsored a summer program for children, put in new park playground equipment, fixed potholes, cleaned up vacant lots and towed away 1,600 junked cars.

"I have always said the solution is not just police," said East Palo Alto Mayor Sharifa Wilson. "The overall concern is to get to the root of the problem. We have to figure out a way to bring money into the community."

Others note that most crime-ridden communities do not have prosperous neighbors like Palo Alto and Menlo Park willing to donate police officers, resources, equipment and staff time.

"There is an analogy here of what could be done in South-Central (Los Angeles)," said Menlo Park City Councilwoman Gail Slocum, a former Los Angeles attorney who played a pivotal role in the effort to aid East Palo Alto. "The problem is, they don't have Palo Alto next door. Would people from Pasadena really help? I don't know."

Wedged between San Francisco Bay and the wealthy Palo Alto and Menlo Park, the 2 1/2-square-mile community of East Palo Alto has long been the outcast of the San Francisco Peninsula.

Before World War II, it was known as Runnymede and was the center of a utopian experiment in chicken farming. After the war, with widespread redlining by lenders and real estate agents, blacks settled in the low-income community.

Barely over a mile from Stanford University, the city's main commercial strip became known as Whiskey Gulch and was a popular spot among Stanford students because it was the closest place to buy liquor.

After years of neglect by San Mateo County government, the community voted to incorporate as a city in 1983, but rejected a ballot measure to change its name to Nairobi.

With no supermarket or bank and few jobs available, the drug trade has flourished in recent years. Like the Stanford students who once came for alcohol, narcotics users drive to East Palo Alto from surrounding cities to buy drugs from young men sell their wares on the sidewalks.

Police trace much of the recent surge in violence to drug deals. In 1992, they note, 16 of the 42 people slain in East Palo Alto were outsiders who had apparently come in search of drugs.

The city also has been beset by gang violence as the town has grown more racially diverse, setting off rivalries between different racial groups and neighborhoods.

When the number of homicides soared to 42 in 1992--twice as many as in each of the previous four years--leaders of neighboring communities were shocked into action. Elected officials in Menlo Park and Palo Alto recognized that crime transcended city lines.

"Bullets don't know any boundaries," said Slocum, who used to hear gunfire routinely at her home in Menlo Park.

By chance last year, the mayors of all three cities were women--Wilson, Slocum and Palo Alto Mayor Jean McCown. Unlike their male predecessors, they were able to break down much of the hostility between the cities that had grown over the years.

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