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.
An important part of their cooperative plan was that East Palo Alto officials make the decisions, whether it was in running the multi-agency police force or in implementing an economic development plan. With that understanding, the two wealthier cities assigned staff members to help East Palo Alto, solicited private donations and, in the case of Menlo Park, donated an old street sweeper.
But the first step, they agreed, was to beef up the police force, which at 35 officers was so understaffed it could not put more than three officers on the street at a time. Officers spent most of their shifts running from crime to crime, ignoring all but the most violent incidents.
"We didn't have enough to suit up a team," said Capt. John Sterling. "It was like we were playing six-man football against the Forty-Niners."
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 all, the outside officers more than doubled the strength of the department.
The Highway Patrol took over traffic enforcement in the city, freeing other officers to tackle more serious crimes. For the first time, motorists in East Palo Alto started getting pulled over in routine traffic stops. And during the last nine months of 1993, the CHP made 724 drunken driving arrests--more than all the driving-under-the-influence arrests in the city's history, Sterling said.
Under the direction of newly appointed East Palo Alto Police Chief Burnham Matthews, the multi-agency force has tried to pick its targets, forming special teams for rapid response and conducting surveillance of suspected drug dealers.
With the help of federal agents, it conducted a drug sting that resulted in 85 arrests in two days. Another 95 people were arrested in a sweep of suspects with outstanding warrants. And a handful of criminals were put away on federal weapons charges.
Matthews and Sterling, who worked together in Oakland as police lieutenants, also have tried to instill a more professional attitude in the East Palo Alto Police Department. On New Year's Eve, for example, officers usually hid in their cars under freeway overpasses while residents went on a shooting spree.
For the past two New Year's celebrations, however, every available officer has been assigned to duty, ordered to keep a high profile and to respond quickly to any sounds of gunfire. This New Year's was the quietest in years, Sterling said.
If there is a lesson in the East Palo Alto experience for other cities, Sterling said, it is to focus on small neighborhoods, balancing a heavy police presence with economic development and community improvements.
"Law enforcement alone is not the answer," he said. "It's the immediate first step."