In 1992, East Palo Alto (EPA) had the highest murder-per-capita rate in the United States. In 2023, the city reported zero homicides.
This milestone wasn’t reached overnight, but rather is the result of decades of improvements to a city once known for gang violence and drug dealing.
Mayor Antonio López attributes much of this recent success to the establishment of a robust and trusted police department. “There was a time when we were only paying 80% of what the county was offering their police, so there were enormous vacancies in the police department,” he said. “We were losing folks because they were getting hired elsewhere, so making sure police officers had parity was crucial.”
The police department has built trust with residents through their community policing method—which encourages officers to engage in local events and form connections with community members—leading to an increase in communication and mutual understanding of each other’s goals.
Other recent safety measures include the installation of security cameras in public parks which, López explained, “shows criminals in our community that we will be aggressively going after them.”
Investing in the youth has also contributed to change. “After the death of a fifteen-year-old in 2022, there was a wake-up call to leadership, including myself, to invest in and prioritize funding youth-based and after-school programs,” said López. “When I was growing up, so much of the violence that young people were getting involved in was due to idle time and not having supervision. So, having after-school programs like the Boys and Girls Club and Live in Peace allows us to make sure that our children are staying focused and energized.”
“I want to invest in infrastructure and programs to give students a sense of belonging so they don’t feel that they have to resort to violence to express themselves,” he added.
Pastor Deborah Lewis-Virges of Saint Mark AME Zion Church in EPA said, “[One of the biggest reasons for this decline in violence is that] we have so many more options for our youth. One doesn’t have to glorify a life of crime or seek that as their way of coming up. Now they can learn how to become AI and computer experts.”
Lewis-Virges and other members of EPA’s faith community have gathered against violence, including through their Pray EPA program, which consisted of over 40 churches coming together and praying for the city on various street corners.
Lewis-Virges said, “Whenever I’m called as pastor to a crime scene, where a mother has lost a child, it is never satisfying. I remember when it felt like it was every other week. So for us, it’s been trying to eliminate those moments. We’re not going to tolerate it; we’re not going to sit back.”
M-A Library Assistant Roger Garcia, who has lived in EPA since he was five years old and has worked in the Sequoia Union High School District for 23 years, attributes EPA’s transformation to the development of popular businesses. “Bringing in big stores has brought a lot of tax money to the city, which then goes to things like better schools and paving the streets.”
“We’re trying to send the strong message that we are not going to take any more deaths or any more funerals. We are going to continue to stand up to violence. I’m really proud and humbled that as mayor, I could usher in this new year with zero homicides. I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime. It is an emotional, beautiful thing to witness,” López said.
Going into 2024, EPA’s leaders and community members hope to continue improving the city.
Lewis-Virges said, “We’re at an absolute crossroads right now where our challenges and our opportunities have come together. My grandmother used to say that luck was preparation and opportunity meeting up, and I kind of see that for East Palo Alto.”
“Much of EPA’s current challenge isn’t safety—we’ve achieved that—but it is really the economic piece of providing a downtown, centers for our youth and our community, and fixing the reputation that we’ve had over these past few decades,” explained López. “The current reputation damages our city by limiting business development.”
EPA, located in Silicon Valley and surrounded by some of the wealthiest companies in the nation, has a growing tech industry, with companies like Meta and Google moving in and expanding.
Some residents, however, see this as problematic gentrification rather than progress. In an opinion piece for The Mercury News, resident Heleine Grewe wrote, “The seeming lack of city plans and policies to keep residents from losing their homes is alarming […] My family has worked relentlessly to maintain its roots in East Palo Alto because the city is our home. But we can’t live there because there are no affordable homes.”
“The area as a whole is becoming more desirable to all types of people,” Lewis-Virges said. “It’s no longer pigeon-holed as the place for those who are not allowed elsewhere because of redlining.”
López added, “One of my objectives is to fix the Sanitation District, which has obstructed development in EPA for years. This includes affordable housing projects and subsuming the district under city leadership.”
Another goal of his is to beautify and modernize EPA’s public parks and green spaces. He said, “I want to make sure that we go after state and federal funds to transform our parks because we have a new community, and we have a lot of single mothers that use our parks, and they deserve to not only have a roof over their head, but also a place at the end of the street where they can safely play, exercise, and relieve stress.”
“EPA has come a long way,” Garcia concluded. “It absolutely can still get better and there are still issues. But the simple fact I felt comfortable raising my kids here shows it’s come a long way.”
López said, “We have a unique opportunity to shake the ashes of our past and create a resilient, beautiful, dynamic, robust city that has the long-overdue resources it so desperately deserves.”
Read about EPA’s history and progress over time here.