A Community Battle: Turning EPA Around

11 mins read

 

In 1992, East Palo Alto (EPA) was the murder capital of the U.S. 42 people were murdered—a homicide rate of 175 murders every 100,000 people, which was almost 20 times the nation’s homicide rate of 9.3 murders every 100,000 people. The effects of this violence ricocheted through EPA, San Mateo County, and M-A. 

To understand the gang problem in the Peninsula in the late ‘80s, it is necessary to start with Colombian cocaine. In the late 1970s, the entry of Colombian drug dealers like Pablo Escobar into the cocaine market pushed an influx of cocaine into the US drug market. This increased supply made the price dive—some report as much as a 75% decrease, from approximately $750 to $200 per gram. Then, in 1981, an innovation created crack cocaine: smokable rocks of cocaine mixed with baking soda that were easier to produce and more accessible for urban customers. This caused the nationwide crack epidemic of the 1980s, which disproportionately impacted Black communities—including EPA. This epidemic increased violence nationally: from 1984 to 1994, the homicide rate for Black men aged 14-17 more than doubled. 

Systemic racism caused this disproportionate impact. Across the U.S., redlining, or housing segregation, forced Black people into poorer neighborhoods. After the Civil War, white people sought to keep their neighborhoods white-only by putting clauses in house deeds to prevent people of color from buying property. EPA itself was cleanly redlined when Highway 101 separated it from Menlo Park and Palo Alto in 1926

In these redlined communities, decades of police brutality formed Black communities that were mistrustful of law enforcement, which meant people were unlikely to report drug dealing or consumption to the police. Moreover, as U.S. corporations outsourced manufacturing jobs to cheaper, foreign markets, unemployment rose. These issues for impoverished Black communities were compounded by poorly-funded and inadequate schools for Black children, which only reinforced the poverty cycle. 

In EPA, redlining’s legacy meant that the ethnic majority was Black. With this systematically oppressed community and a convenient location just off Highway 101, EPA was a prime location for drug dealing. This resulted in an influx of gangs and gang violence in the area in the 1980s. Specifically, a gang called the Midtown Hogs is largely considered responsible for introducing crack into EPA in this time period. For youth, joining a gang and dealing drugs was a lucrative opportunity. At the time, EPA had the highest unemployment rate in San Mateo County. In an article with TechCrunch, EPA resident Bob Hoover said that kids in East Palo Alto in the ‘80s could make the equivalent of $500 a day selling crack or heroin.

In a 1990 letter to the Peninsula Times Tribune, N. Armond Ross, chairman of the EPA Planning Commission, noted, “the one visibly carnivorous burden in our community is narcotics.” 
At the same time, the city’s budget was woefully insufficient, leading to inadequate funds for police or anti-drug community resources.

In 1983, EPA voted to separate from the larger city of Palo Alto and become its own town–a 30-year-old debate. Despite a scarce tax base for city funding, proponents of incorporation argued that EPA’s issues were not addressed by Palo Alto’s government. The end count was 1778-1766 for incorporation, with just a miniscule margin of 12 votes. Opponents argued that there was fraudulent voting and sought to invalidate the election. In a 1987 interview with the LA Times, EPA teacher Gertrude Wilks, an incorporation opponent, said, “I do not want to be part of separatism. That is what Dr. King brought us out of, and I won’t go back for anyone.” The backlash brought three years of legal battles and pushed the case Wilks v. Mouton all the way to the California Supreme Court. Though the incorporation was ultimately upheld, the process drained the city’s already-low funds. Once incorporated, Menlo Park and Palo Alto annexed the most profitable parts of EPA, preventing economic growth. Local government and residents were enraged. In that same interview, EPA Mayor Barbara Mouton, who served from 1983-1987, said, “Palo Alto raped us and Menlo Park raped us and San Mateo County—all of them raped us. To be frank, if we had been a white community they [county supervisors] would not have allowed them to do that.”

“Palo Alto raped us and Menlo Park raped us and San Mateo County—all of them raped us. To be frank, if we had been a white community they [county supervisors] would not have allowed them to do that.”

 

At its inception, EPA had a miniscule commercial tax base. Part of it can be attributed to the expansion of Highway 101 in 1956. According to the Palo Alto Times, the four lane expansion plowed through a business sector, displacing 53 businesses. Only 5 remained. Resident Ruben Avelar explained the lack of commercial stores. “You couldn’t buy a pair of socks in East Palo Alto, but you could buy guns, drugs, and if you were a minor, alcohol.”

The business shortage lasted. Until 2002, EPA did not even have a bank. According to the book, Be the Change: Reinventing School for Student Success, “East Palo Alto was the largest unbanked city in the United States.” 

“We were becoming a city, and as we were putting our police force together, cities nationwide were dealing with crack cocaine.” –Documentary Dreams of a City: Creating East Palo Alto

EPA’s police department was also underfunded. In 1990, EPA’s budget was just 5 million dollars for its population of 23,000. Over half went towards the police force, about 110 dollars per person. For comparison, in the same time period, Palo Alto had a police budget of 58 million dollars for 55,000 people, or about 1,000 dollars a person. Now, with a stronger tax base and careful budgeting, EPA spends approximately 14 million dollars on its police force alone. 

Before this response, a 1993 San Francisco Examiner article explained, “The most dangerous streets in America are being patrolled by a police department that is grossly understaffed, seriously underpaid, and, according to outside critics, plagued by unqualified officers and internal corruption.” Sergeant Nick Bennett explained, “It’s been an attitude of the rest of the county that East Palo Alto is out there by themselves, let them take care of themselves. They’ve been ignored.” 

Police officers on EPAPD also had one of the most dangerous jobs. In a 1990 San Francisco Examiner article, Stanford criminologist Richard H. Blum found that East Palo Alto officers faced the state’s highest rates of assault and fatal injury in the line of duty. East Palo Alto officers also earned the lowest wages of any police department in the Bay Area. In his study, Blum wrote, “[EPAPD] operates with dangerously insufficient and inadequate resources. Patrol strength is inadequate, detective division is woefully understrength… desperately needed, but nonexistent, are intelligence, community relations, juvenile (and) substance abuse officers.” 

SF Examiner: “Some nights there are more shooting victims than police on duty.” 

Between 1990-2000, EPA’s population grew by 25.8%, almost double the California population growth of 13.8% in the same period. This population growth was largely Hispanic: between 1990 and 2000, the Hispanic population increased by over 100%. This shifted the ethnic majority from Black to Hispanic and increased ethnic tensions between gangs in the area in the ‘90s. 

In 1992, EPA earned nationwide attention for the title “murder capital of the U.S.” Though its homicide rate was a horrific anomaly, EPA’s number of violent crimes was actually in line with previous years. For reference, violent crimes include murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. In 1986, EPA had 250 violent crimes per 10,000 people—more than double the statewide rate of 92 violent crimes per 10,000 people. In 1992, EPA had approximately 225 violent crimes per 10,000 people. In other terms, EPA had relatively the same amount of violence from the late 80s to early 90s. It was just 1992 that garnered attention for the number of deaths. 

BREAKING POINT & TURN AROUND

Over the course of two particularly horrifying days, January 15th-16th in 1992, 11 people were shot, one fatally. 

This was met with a swift police response: Police Chief Burnham Matthews called in 78 police officers from across the Peninsula to patrol EPA’s streets for the next week. Then, in April 1992, the mayors of East Palo Alto, Palo Alto, and Menlo Park came together to create the Regional Enforcement Detail, an anti-drug police team. Though it was only a nine-officer unit, they made over 1,000 arrests in the next two years. The three mayors also created a five year police plan, launching “Operation Safe Streets” in April 1993, which tripled the number of patrolling officers using supplements from the California Highway Patrol and San Mateo County. 

Mayor Sharifa Wilson, who served from 1992-1995, got EPA upwards of $2 million in state grants for police equipment, city administration, and community programs. House Representative Anna Eshoo also helped provide $1 million in state grants for police salaries in 1997. This money boosted the police force and community resources. In 1992, the EPAPD had 34 officers, approximately 1.4 officers per every 1,000 civilians. Three years later, they expanded to 46 officers, or 1.8 officers per every 1,000 civilians.

But more officers wasn’t the full answer. More effective was the work to restore the relationship between EPA civilians and their police. In the 90s, a sect of rogue EPA police officers abused their power by beating and harassing residents. The community deeply mistrusted the force.

In the late 90s, police chaplain Pastor Paul Bains and other faith leaders took charge. They sought police reform by running campaigns and youth summits partnering the police department with community organizations. The gap between police and community began to shrink. In 2005, new chief Ronald Davis began a community policing model and removed rogue officers. In a Palo Alto Weekly interview, Davis said, “We had a very engaged community that wanted change. The community was the one that was leading. This police department was smart enough to lead side by side and to follow.” Today, EPA holds regular community meetings to discuss city crime and civilians ride bikes with officers through the struggling parts of the city. There are still improvements to be made, but the department has come a long way.

“We had a very engaged community that wanted change. The community was the one that was leading. This police department was smart enough to lead side by side and to follow.”

The city also began a gun buy-back program which resulted in removing over 100 firearms from the streets. With so many variables, gun buy-back programs have slim evidence of efficacy. In an article analyzing gun buy-back studies, Amanda Charbonneau, a policy researcher at the non-partisan research non-profit Rand Corporation wrote that gun buy-back programs “are unlikely to measurably reduce firearm violence, even if they do prevent some incidents,” especially because “too few firearms are turned in to gun buy-backs.” Still, any reduction in firearms in EPA was a positive step. 

But above all, the EPA community rallied to restore peace to their neighborhoods. Organizations like Live in Peace and Nuestra Casa, which were founded in the early 2000s, provided support to families and youth. Another community organization, Free at Last, was founded in 1993 by a small citizen group to provide addiction treatment and prevention sources for those touched by incarceration and HIV/AIDS. 

Much of the decrease in violence came from a grassroots movement. EPA citizens mobilized to curb drug trafficking. The documentary “Dreams of a City: Creating East Palo Alto” described how the “Just-Us” group was a racially and economically diverse group of residents who discouraged drug-use, trafficking, and violence in the crime hotspots of EPA. Sgt. Bennet explained, “They didn’t shirk, they didn’t hide. It made a difference.”

“On this corner, where my house is, there were these men who would wear these [Just Us] t-shirts. They would get up at 5:30 in the morning and they would stand on the corner. They would be there all day and all night, discouraging any kind of illicit activity.”

Resident Halili Knox explained, “On this corner, where my house is, there were these men who would wear these [Just Us] t-shirts. They would get up at 5:30 in the morning and they would stand on the corner. They would be there all day and all night, discouraging any kind of illicit activity.” According to a 1993 San Francisco Examiner article, the “Just-Us” group reported 1400 license plates to the police over four months, on just one street corner (Bay and Laurel). Drug traffic there declined by approximately 90%. 

In another instance of grassroots work, in a 1998 Stanford Magazine article, resident Terri Vines explained how she convinced drug dealers to attend remedial classes at her own home. “I told them, ‘You may be able to make money selling drugs, but you have a lousy benefits package.’”

Beyond increased funding for the EPAPD, there was also increased economic activity in the community. After its incorporation, developers were hesitant to buy into EPA because of high crime rates. At the breaking ground of the first shopping center in EPA, Mayor Sharifa Wilson said, “65% of our dollars go outside of our community.” That same shopping center transformed the city’s economy. According to a 2001 SF Gate article, the Ravenswood 101 Shopping center quadrupled EPA’s retail sales and doubled the municipal government’s operating budget. In 2002, EPA finally opened its first bank. 

In that same article, Stanford Law School Professor John Donahue said, “The booming economy has provided legitimate employment opportunities to some people who, without those, might end up lapsing into criminal activity.” From 1992 to 2001, EPA’s job market increased by 17%.

EPA schools also promoted economic growth. Lisa Otsuka, who taught in the Ravenswood district from 1991-2002, said, “At Willow [Oaks Elementary] we had a microsociety, a functioning society within the school. Every class had a business. I ran a restaurant called Cafe Otsuka, and once a month we would plan a menu and make meals for teachers and friends. Kids learned how to run a business.” 

With all of these improvements—increased economic activity, better policing, and grassroots organizing— the turn-around in violence was astounding. In fact, in the next eight years, the total combined number of homicides was the same as just 1992. 

With all of these improvements—increased economic activity, better policing, and grassroots organizing— the turn-around in violence was astounding. In fact, in the next eight years, the total combined number of homicides was the same as just 1992. 

Although overall violence declined impressively after 1992, EPA continued to suffer from gang violence in the 2010s. But now, the narrative has shifted; because of increased policing, people discuss the number of gang arrests, not the number of deaths from gangs. 

As one example, from October 2012 to January 2013, four East Palo Alto residents were murdered in a gang feud. East Palo Alto Police responded with Operation Sunny Day in 2014. As the largest gang-bust in San Mateo County’s history, Operation Sunny Day turned into an 18-month-long investigation which resulted in 16 indicted gang members from three different Peninsula-based gangs: Da Vill, Sac Street, and the Taliban. All indicted members were convicted of various felonies—including capital murder, bribery, and weapons charges—and sentenced from 20 years to life in prison. 

In another instance, in 2009, police made a sweeping raid of the Taliban gang—a gang which evolved from the 1980s Midtown Hogs. It resulted in 42 arrests.

A tragic effect of this increased policing and incarceration was a disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic families.  In EPA, a majority Hispanic and Black community, the book Be the Change: Reinventing School for Student Success noted, “The high rates of incarceration touched nearly all of the families in East Palo Alto in some way.” The data reflects this. Across San Mateo County, between 1985-1994, Black adults were arrested approximately 11.5 times more than White adults, and Hispanic adults were arrested 2.5 times more than White adults. The disparity has since shrunk but certainly remains: in 2010, Black adults were arrested 8.6 times more than White adults, and Hispanic adults were arrested 2.2 times more than White adults. 

East Palo Alto has come a long way in the last thirty years. In 2022, there were just five homicides, a rate of 17.5 murders per 100,000 people. Crucially, all were solved. The city continues to struggle with crime and gang-related violence, but an improved police force, economic growth, and most importantly, internal community support has curbed much of the overt violence in East Palo Alto. 

As Governor Pete Wilson put it in his 1994 State of the State address. “The murder rate in East Palo Alto has fallen by 86 percent — the largest drop in the state. The people fought back and the people are winning.” 

This is part one of a two-part story. As EPA suffered from gang violence in the 80s and 90s, so too did M-A. Part two will be published in the coming week.

Isabel Norman is a senior and in her first year of journalism. She is particularly interested in writing about systemic issues at M-A and the Bears community. In her free time, you can find her at the beach, on a hike, or otherwise in nature.

2 Comments

  1. Congrats on a well researched and well written series!

    Interesting to read the statistics in these articles. EPA has seen a huge drop in crime, and both EPA and Palo Alto had one murder in 2019 – just before violent crime jumped in the COVID era. EPA has not had a murder yet this year, and we are almost 3/4 through the year.
    .

  2. Dinan. There was just a murder three weeks ago at City Hall. You even posted the article on your rag three weeks ago. Why the misinformation?

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