East Palo Alto Takes Back Its Mean Streets

A CLOSER LOOK. A year ago, its number of drug-related homicides won this city the label `murder capital' of the US. Determined citizens and a bold police experiment reversed the picture. This `small miracle' could be a model for the nation.

LUTHER JACKSON remembers all too vividly when the street in front of his house was a supermarket for drug dealing. On some nights, the cars were lined up a dozen deep waiting to buy ``crack.''

Along with the trafficking came the shootings. Nightly shootings. Sometimes, they'd just be shooting out the streetlights. Sometimes each other. Mr. Jackson, a retired auto detailer with menacing shoulders and an affable demeanor, would pick up cartridges off his driveway each morning. Bullets remain lodged in his garage door.

Today, kids play on Laurel Street. Mothers stroll by taking young ones to a nearby park, and the only thing Jackson picks up off his front yard are petals from his petunias.

``It's peaceful,'' he says.

The reclaiming of Luther Jackson's street is symbolic of a turnaround of a community that until recently had statistically the meanest streets in America.

A year ago, East Palo Alto was the murder capital of the United States, the Tombstone of its day. It had more homicides per capita than any place in the country.

Killings are now down 86 percent and, as far as anyone knows, there are no longer any elderly people sleeping in bathtubs at night to avoid getting hit by stray bullets.

The turnaround has been engineered by a large police presence on the streets and a determined effort by community activists to take back neighborhoods. In a nation searching for answers to crime, East Palo Alto has become the premier case study of what more cops on the beat and citizens turning up the heat can do.

But, underlying the experiment, questions persist: Can the experience of a small community be duplicated in large cities? Is putting so many police on the street affordable - or even an appropriate answer to crime? Will this success last?

Wedge of poverty amid wealth

East Palo Alto has always been something of an anomaly in the south San Francisco Bay area. It is a wedge of poverty in an area with its share of wealth. It is an area of high joblessness on the edge of one of the world's great jobmaking machines, Silicon Valley.

Predominantly black and Hispanic - and proud of its multiculturalism - it shares a boundary with Palo Alto, creating a tale of two cities that even Dickens couldn't match. One has million-dollar homes squired among the eucalyptus and a downtown with sidewalk cafes and European bakeries. The other has a main street nicknamed ``Whiskey Gulch'' for the number of liquor stores.

One harbors a world-class university, Stanford, whose professors chase subatomic particles and advise presidents. The other has 14 percent of its residents receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children, nearly double the state average, and streets with so many potholes that they should be on welfare.

Until recently, East Palo Alto also had those unenviable crime statistics. Forty-two people were killed here in 1992, not a lot by big-city standards but enough to put the community at the top of the murder charts when gauged by population.

``It was unbelievable,'' says Police Chief Burnham Matthews, who took over the top cop job here in 1991 after 24 years with the Oakland Police Department. ``I'd walk out to my car at night, and I could hear the gunfire. I thought I'd seen and heard it all in Oakland.''

Drugs were the main reason for the mayhem. East Palo Alto had become a drive-thru window for dealers in the south Bay area. It was a convenient stop along the 101 freeway.

``It was like the McDrugs of the Peninsula,'' says Larry Calloway, a community activist. ``You could get in and out in three minutes.''

It was partly the presence of so many outsiders sullying their community that spurred some local residents to act. On a cold and rainy morning in October of 1991, a group of citizens decided to take over a street corner. It was the corner in front of Luther Jackson's house.

Armed only with two-way radios and a sense of outrage, the group confronted the people pulling up to buy narcotics. They figured that if they took the profit out of selling, the dealers would disappear. They recorded the license plate numbers of would-be buyers and gave them to police. About 80 percent, it turned out, were from out of town. The group returned to the same corner every morning and night for six months, before moving on to another.

``The effort was to take one piece of territory,'' recalls Mr. Calloway, a founder of the antidrug group, Just Us. ``It was like a war.''

Meanwhile, chief Matthews was making changes in the police department. The 35-officer force was woefully understaffed. It couldn't even draw a Maginot line in the street.

Then, in January of 1992, a mini-drug war broke out. Fifteen shootings occurred in 12 hours. Aided by other police departments in the area, Matthews put 78 cops on the streets for five days - a virtual standing army in a city of only 2.5 square miles.

An idea began to take root. The chief knew impoverished East Palo Alto could never afford enough officers itself to control the crime problem. It had taken nickel-and-dime contributions from patrons of a coffee shop just to get bullet-proof vests for his officers. City squad cars looked like they were bought from Sanford and Son.

Other area law enforcement officials realized that East Palo Alto's problem was also their problem. Crime doesn't know boundaries. It didn't hurt in focusing their attention that some of the bullets being fired in East Palo Alto were landing in platinum neighborhoods in their jurisdictions.

In April of 1992, the ``Red Team'' (Regional Enforcement Detail) was launched with officers from East Palo Alto, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and federal and state agencies. The nine-member unit targeted specific neighborhoods and career criminals. Later, separate investigations by the FBI and the US Marshal's Service put 180 drug dealers behind bars.

The beefed-up police presence was effective enough that a five-year plan was drawn up. The result was ``Operation Safe Streets,'' launched in April 1993, which more than tripled the number of cops on the street. It included a large contingent of officers from the California Highway Patrol and San Mateo County Sheriff's Department.

The city also began to tow abandoned vehicles and board up empty houses in an attack on urban blight. By the time 1993 was over, only six murders had been tallied in the city and most other major crime was down.

``There are 36 people living in this town today who ostensibly would be dead if it wasn't for what law enforcement has done,'' says Chief Matthews.

While putting too many cops on the street strikes some as oppressive, there have been relatively few complaints from East Palo Alto's beleaguered residents.

Authorities here say that isn't the point anyway: Flooding a community with cops won't curb crime. The key, they contend, is identifying the worst offenders and targeting resources - something that could be done in any size city.

Others note that the lesson to be drawn is the need for regional cooperation, particularly in an era of scarce resources. Without community involvement, though, no amount of batons and badges will curb crime for long.

``Then the violent people and criminals don't just see a bunch of cops,'' says Joseph McNamara, a former San Jose police chief, now a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. ``They see the police and the people acting in partnership, which is when small miracles occur.''

Town officials are hoping to build on the relative calm to tackle deeper social and economic problems. They are more aggressively pursuing state and federal grants. An ``enterprise zone'' is being set up, and a retail shopping complex is planned.

Something `finally happening'

``We have a long way to go,'' says Mayor Sharifa Wilson, the Reebok-wearing director of a local day care center. ``But there is really something finally happening here.''

One thing finally happening is that Luther Jackson's grandchildren are visiting again. His daughter had stopped bringing them because of all the shootings. Mr. Jackson had even contemplated moving after living in East Palo Alto since 1954.

He is leaning back in a rocking chair now, looking out the window at the street where drug dealers had once become so bold that they tried to sell to the chief of police when he drove by. An afternoon sun glances off a big sycamore tree in the front yard.

``It is still not what we would like it to be here,'' he says. ``But it is far better than it was 1 1/2 years ago.''

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