How East Palo Alto went from U.S. ‘murder capital’ to murder-free

Cars pass a Facebook sign in East Palo Alto in 2021.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. It’s Wednesday, Jan. 10. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

From U.S. ‘murder capital’ to zero homicides

In 1992, the small Bay Area city of East Palo Alto made national headlines as the “murder capital” of the U.S.

At the time, 42 people were murdered in the city, which had a population of 24,000. That works out to a murder rate of 175 homicides for every 100,000 residents.


“Officials attributed the upswing in homicides to an increasingly violent drug trade that lures buyers from throughout the Bay Area,” former Times reporter Jenifer Warren wrote at the time. “More than half of the homicides were narcotics-related, statistics show, and 70% of the victims were involved in criminal activity when they were killed.”

Just over three decades later, the city is making headlines again — this time as a success story. After years of declining killings, East Palo Alto ended 2023 with an important local milestone: zero murders.

So how did the small city go from murder capital to murder-free? Times reporter Brittny Mejia spoke with city and police officials past and present, along with community leaders, to find out. As she explained this week, “a complicated mix of circumstances” helped reverse the trend.

One reason that’s been floated: gentrification. The Bay Area’s tech boom brought new residents, raised housing prices and pushed out some longtime residents. But as Brittny reported, community members and leaders in East Palo Alto “argue that poverty and crime don’t necessarily go hand in hand.”

“They point to increased development since they earned the grim title of murder capital, including an Ikea and a Four Seasons hotel,” she wrote. “Also: more job opportunities, programs for youth and community policing. And time.”

In the wake of its 1992 designation, the short-term response was more cops and more arrests. The city more than doubled its police presence as the county and nearby cities sent officers to help. That crackdown helped bring the number of murders down to four in 1993.


But city leaders held that more policing alone was not a long-term solution, Brittny noted. They took the view that true progress would be achieved through economic development, better job opportunities for residents and a concerted effort to build community trust with law enforcement.

A newly developed shopping center hired local residents. Local nonprofit and faith-based groups launched after-school programs that kept young people off the streets. Some residents went out in groups to intimidate drug dealers and take photos of cars driving into neighborhoods to buy drugs. Community members shared those photos and other information with police.

In the 17 years between 2006 and 2022, homicides in East Palo Alto numbered in the single digits. Then, in the early moments of 2024, city officials celebrated their new milestone — and they hope to keep it that way.

“It really is a testament to the commitment of the community to fix itself,” Sharifa Wilson, who was mayor of East Palo Alto in 1992, told Brittny. “The fact that we were labeled the homicide capital gave us an attention that we needed, and then we took that attention and turned it into something positive. If you give us lemons, we’re gonna make lemonade.”

You can read more about East Palo Alto’s turnaround in Brittny’s story.

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