East Palo Alto police chief Ronald Davis weighs crime solutions

Roughly two weeks ago, eight people were shot in eight days in East Palo Alto. Among them was a 15-year-old boy, killed in what appeared to be a gang-related shooting. For a city trying to confront both its crime rate and its calamitous public image, it was a major setback. For Chief of Police Ronald Davis, it was cause for alarm.

Davis called a state of emergency and asked the City Council to allocate extra money for police overtime so that he could deploy extra beat cops during critical hours for one month. He shuffled his staff, canceled their time off and asked them to work extra weekends. He even tried enforcing a curfew that the city had implemented in 1995 but mostly ignored. For one night only, Davis dispatched kids from the local youth court to hand out citations — sort of like a DUI checkpoint, he said. Fortunately, they didn't find any violators.

As they enter the third week of the crime crackdown, East Palo Alto police have clocked more than two dozen arrests — including many of suspected gang members. But they've also focused on prevention methods that, according to Davis, are the real key to reducing crime.

“These spikes just reinforce that there are a lot of root causes that police can't handle alone,” he said in a recent interview. Davis added that while he's willing to saturate an area with beat cops as a temporary fix — a so-called hot-spot form of policing that's become popular throughout the country — he doesn't think it's the best way to solve crime in the long run.

East Palo Alto has seen precipitous crime spikes before, in previous years, it's called for outside help. In 1992, the city's murder rate suddenly went off the charts, so departments in other cities tried to help by forming an informal task force and flooding the area with resources. In 2007 it rose again under Davis' watch, so he asked the county and state to intervene.

Before asking the county to step in, Davis banked on a variety of smaller, indirect measures. In his eight years as chief he's tried every prevention method under the sun, from gunfire sensors, to town hall meetings, to neighborhood fitness events, to parole re-entry programs, to identifying and patrolling hot spots, to establishing a bullish presence on social media.

Many of those approaches have evidently paid off, even if some cost more up front. Homicides in East Palo Alto decreased 50 percent in the first six years of the chief's tenure, according to researchers at the Smart Policing Initiative. But it's hard to tell from the outside, Davis said. To a certain extent, “crackdowns” like this one require a leap of faith, since there's no hard-and-fast way to handle them. Combining grant money with city coffers, Davis has thrown resources at a problem to see what sticks. Davis projects that the extra labor costs for this crackdown won't exceed $25,000.

The savings will come down the line, he says, with fewer murders to investigate. Right now he and other city administrators haven't put a cap on expenditures. They'll evaluate their work at the end of the month and decide how to proceed.

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