An armed street robbery on Feb. 15 and a rash of residential burglaries last week in Palo Alto has some residents calling for the city to install surveillance cameras and license-plate readers, and others ramping up efforts to communicate with their neighbors.
Duveneck residents, who live near Embarcadero Road and U.S. Highway 101, asked Palo Alto police to consider adding cameras or plate readers at the neighborhood's three access points after a man walking his dog was held up at gunpoint. But Patrol Capt. Ron Watson told the residents in an email that he did not think it would be possible to blanket the area with cameras.
"While I understand the concern for your neighborhood, it ... wouldn't do anything if any future crime happened to occur in an area adjacent to your neighborhood," he wrote.
In addition, he said, the department proposed using grant money a few years ago to purchase a license-plate reader to look for stolen vehicles and other criminal activity, but the City Council felt the idea leaned too far toward "Big Brother."
"Having said that, there are any number of citizens who have placed video cameras around their home and captured images of crimes, which can most definitely be useful in some circumstances," Watson said.
Duveneck residents had also asked for the Public Works department to trim trees and improve lighting. Watson said the department is looking into those improvements.
Joel Henner, a neighborhood leader who has worked on emergency preparation and reconstituting some form of neighborhood watch, said crews have been trimming the shrubs and trees this week, and it has made a difference. He has also noticed increased police patrols, he said.
But he was skeptical that a city-sponsored camera-surveillance setup would become a reality. Neighbors are divided on that concept, he said.
"I think on the face of it, that's a good idea. I wouldn't mind seeing it. But it's costly. And for everyone who thinks it's a good idea, there is someone who is opposed to it," he said.
Karen White, Duveneck/St. Francis Neighborhood Association president, said she thinks the cameras could be used on a temporary basis.
Other Palo Alto residents have added security alarms and cameras to their homes.
Alan Yu installed an alarm system after his Oregon Avenue residence was burglarized four or five years ago. A few days after the break-in, perpetrators returned and tried to kick in a door, breaking a glass window. Since installing the alarms and posting a sign outside, he has not had further trouble, he said.
But he doesn't disapprove of adding street-surveillance equipment.
"There has to be some sacrifice of the convenience/privacy issues over having more safety," he said.
"I never used to fear for my safety until I saw that robbery report. My house is a block away from 101. I feel very open and exposed. I have rarely ever seen Oregon Avenue patrolled, but I realize that's a very expensive proposition. That's why cameras and license-plate readers are a good option. If something does happen, then you have a record," he said. "It's a one-point presence with an officer. With cameras and readers, there are multiple points."
Henner said two bicycles were stolen from his back yard last year. He carries a light and rape alarm when he walks his dog at night. But communication is the key to making the neighborhood inhospitable to thieves, he said. To that end, he has reached out to the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood through email to form watch groups. At first he hesitated, he said, fearing his neighbors might think him crazy.
"A lot of people don't know me," he said.
But he heard back from many people.
"No one has come back and said, 'Mind your own business,'" he said. Henner said protection is about "creating a place where everyone knows each other" -- and not for the short term.
"We have to take responsibility to keep this place safe. This place should be inhospitable to crooks. What's really important is what we are doing six months from now and two years from now," he said.
Crescent Park resident Amy Wardwell Kacher said residents are using email to increase neighborhood awareness.
"Our neighborhood Yahoo group goes crazy tracking the door-to-door salespeople: 'Girl in her 20s wearing a hoodie and carrying a clipboard just came to my door, had no permit' -- this type of thing. On the Yahoo group, people are discussing possible cameras and installing motion-sensor flood lights," she said.
Parents at schools are discussing the issue when they pick up their children and are talking about how they now lock their back and side doors when they are home, she said.
Kacher said a few people have changed to better quality dead bolts, put alarm signs in their yards, and put 3M coating on some windows, which "makes it virtually impossible to break through."
Police spokesman Lt. Zach Perron said residents should not hesitate to call 911 when they see a suspicious person or suspicious circumstance. Residents who feel uncomfortable calling 911 for a non-emergency can program their phones and speed dial with the non-emergency dispatch-center number, 650-329-2413, he said.
Watson said the department is stepping up patrols and is using two downtown officers to patrol neighborhoods in addition to paying limited overtime for other officers to keep an eye on hotspots. Detectives are also working areas, he said.
The department is using all of the resources at its disposal to tamp down on the crime but overall staffing levels are low. There are 14 sworn-officer vacancies in the department, in part due to the recent high number of retirees.
"At any given time we have five to six vacancies," he said, adding that other factors, such as injuries account for the numbers. "This is exceptionally high. Not since 2006-2007 have we had such a high number, when it was down by 15," he said.
Residents must realize they play a critical role in catching the bad guys, since a handful of officers must patrol 26 square miles and the reality is they will rarely catch burglars red-handed while patrolling, Perron said.
"I've been here for 14 years, and I'm going to be here for 30 years, and I will probably never witness a burglar breaking in," he said.
He noted that neighborhood awareness is highly effective. Palo Alto police arrested three people Monday, Feb. 27, after a resident reported suspicious behavior on Waverley Street near Oregon Expressway.
"It's a perfect example of how that's supposed to work," he said.