A California city’s transformation from ‘murder capital’ of the US to zero murders

East Palo Alto Senior Center Driver Dempsey Mitchell extends his hand to shake that of East Palo Alto Police Chief Jerry Alcaraz (right) as he talks with East Palo Alto Police Chief Al Pardini (center) in front of the East Palo Alto Senior Center on Friday, October 2, 2015 in East Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
(San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/San Francisco Chronicle via Gett)

A California city’s transformation from ‘murder capital’ of the US to zero murders

Homepage News, California Politics

Brittny Mejia

January 8, 2024

This is what it took to make a small town safe.

In 1992, East Palo Alto was dubbed the “murder capital” of the US, with 42 murders per capita in an area of ​​1.5 square miles.


higher than

that of

any other city of any size. According to statistics released last week by the East Palo Alto Police Department, the turnaround appeared to be complete by 2023: zero homicides.



Residents and city officials point to a complicated mix of circumstances that has turned a crime-ridden community into what the mayor now calls “one of the safest places to live on the peninsula.”

The San Francisco Peninsula that Mayor Antonio Lpez referred to is home to Stanford University, the opulent city of Atherton and affluent Palo Alto. Residents and city officials scoff at the


simple idea that solved gentrification


the city’s problems, even though the median household income has risen dramatically and the median home price is just over $900,000.

They argue that poverty and crime do not necessarily go hand in hand. They indicate increased development since they earned

that the

grim title

of murder capital

including an Ikea and a Four Seasons hotel.


increased employment, youth programs and community policing. And time.

“Despite the mistakes of our past, we can move forward and be a model for all,” Lpez said.


East Palo Alto, sandwiched between San Francisco Bay and Palo Alto,

was home to is a small town, numbering

just over 28,000 people at the last census. The median household income is $103,000.

As technology companies flourished in the surrounding areas, the city experienced significant gentrification.

Residents confronted

Rising house prices

left left

Some low-income East Palo Altans feel left out.

East Palo Alto, now largely Latino, was once a landing place for black families

widely spread

redlining by lenders and brokers.

It’s where Paul Bains’ family landed in 1962, at a time when

the city it

majority was black.

East Palo Alto was considered a little black mecca,” said Bains, who lives and works there to this day.

Many people of color owned

their own

homes and took care of each other, he said. bains,

which now serves as the

pastor of St. Samuel Church, referred to that time


like “BC” before crack.

During the country’s crack cocaine epidemic, approximately 17% of East Palo Alto residents lived in poverty, higher than the national level.

“When crack came along, it just demoralized families,” Bains said.

East Palo Alto what

also simultaneously

enduring growing pains. After years of neglect by the San Mateo County government, the community voted to incorporate as a city in 1983.

Paul Norris starts with the newly formed

East Palo Alto Police Department

shortly afterwards, in 1987, when ‘drugs were being sold on almost every street’. Although only four murders occurred that year, the number increased dramatically in the years that followed, reaching double digits.

The majority of the killings, Norris said, involved drug dealers and gang members fighting over territory.



now acting sergeant in the department,

and he

remembered working the night shift when there were six shootings in the city. He waited with a body for 45 minutes before paramedics could arrive.

“It just seemed like a war zone,” he said.


Clyde Virges was on the front lines. He had grown up in East Palo Alto and disappeared


went to college and returned in the late 1980s with a drug problem. Drugs were so plentiful, he said, that he could find them on the streets, the falling crumbs from sales to users who had driven to the troubled city to buy.

“You took a match case and scraped up what you could get off the ground,” he said.

Gunfire was the city’s soundtrack. Residents always said there were drive-ins in Palo Alto;

in East Palo Alto there were drive-bys.

East Palo Alto: Minority City: A Casebook

One New Year’s Eve, Virgos

remembered, huh

pulled a flower pot over his head

in an attempt

to protect himself while he went to buy crack cocaine

he remembered


Virges became involved in the crackdown in the 1990s and was arrested after selling controlled substances to an undercover informant who caught him on video. He called it a blessing.

He spent almost a year in a recovery home before going to school to become a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Now 70, he works as a case manager at the nonprofit

We hope

WeHope in East Palo Alto, where we help the homeless.


In 1992, East Palo Alto achieved national fame.

At the time, the city was home to 24,000 people, and it recorded the highest homicide rate in the US. The number of murders increased

to 42

from 20 years ago

to 42


It was the murders

the equivalent of 175 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants.

“It brought us a tremendous amount of attention here in the state of California,” said Burnham Matthews,

the then

police chief

at the time

. “It was a city that really needed help.”

Help came in the form of outside law enforcement. Palo Alto donated four officers; Menlo Park provided two. Later, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department brought in 18 deputies and the state assigned 12 Highway Patrol officers.

In everything,

The outside officers have more than doubled the strength of the department.

E. Palo Alto murder rate worst in US; Drug wars blamed

According to police statistics, the number of murders dropped to four in 1993.

Sharifa Wilson, who was mayor in 1992, said she welcomed police support at the time


emphasized that this was “not the answer”.

Part of the problem… was a lack of economic opportunity, the 73-year-old said. “We didn’t have access to capital to help establish ourselves.”

Thanks to the attention on East Palo Alto, she said:

the city was that they were

able to get help from the state and move forward with the development of a shopping center with a policy that requires all businesses to hire people from the community.

“We are not raising our children to be drug dealers. By giving them opportunities to work, it had an impact.”

So does Wilson, who still lives in town


has credited the community with reducing crime. At one point, the residents formed a group called “Just Us” and left

to go out

street corners and take pictures of them

the car

license plates thereof

drive in come

to buy medicines. From there the police sent letters to


registered owners

of those cars

inform them that their car


had been seen in an area with a lot of drugs and a lot of crime. (Wilson said one of the letters went to a judge whose son used the car to buy drugs.)

Local nonprofits and faith-based groups


aimed at engaging youth in after-school programs and activities that would keep them away from crime.

It’s really a testament to the community’s commitment to healing itself,” Wilson said. “East Palo Alto has always been a resilient community. The people there are really concerned and care about the community in which they live.

“Being labeled a murder capital gave us the attention we needed, and then we took that attention and turned it into something positive,” she added. “If you give us lemons, we’ll make lemonade.”


for 17 years,

the number of

East Palo Alto’s homicide rate remained in the single digits. In 2017 and again in 2019, there was one homicide in the city.

Shortly after midnight

this one up

On New Year’s Day, Police Chief Jeff Liu texted city officials with the news they had long hoped to hear. Finally, the homicide rate in East Palo Alto had dropped to zero.

“We’ve always had at least one, and reaching zero is such a monumental achievement for our entire community, Liu said. It’s like the goal that always slipped through our fingers.”

Along with the work of his police force, Liu



the performance

residents and the efforts they make to reduce crime,


by young people who help and warn officers

what was what?

happens in the city. That wouldn’t be possible, he said, if the department hadn’t built trust.



Lpez heard the news, he said, and it almost made me cry.

The mayor He

mentioned the investment the city has made

to make it increase

funding for the police

it’s theirs

salaries would be comparable

that of

other law enforcement agencies.

What I like about East Palo Alto is not only that it is a model for our peninsula, but also for the country on how community policing can be effective, he said.





to zero,

leadership organizers



optimistic about


the future





the pastor and

co-founder and chairman of WeHope,

a nonprofit organization that helps people experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area,

said he is “proud of our city.”

“There are so many heroes that we have stood on the shoulders of, who have stayed in this community and lived through the best of times, to the worst of times, now back to the better times,” he said. Now that we have no more murders, we can I want to keep it at zero murders.”


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