The Jan. 23 home-invasion robbery of an elderly Palo Alto couple was the flashpoint for a public meeting that focused on crime prevention and awareness at City Hall Tuesday night, police said.
The gun-point robbery, which alarmed residents and law enforcement, is possibly linked to similar crimes around the Bay Area from Marin to Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Lt. Zach Perron said. Detectives are collaborating with other law-enforcement agencies to identify any possible suspects and connections.
But the take-home message for residents last night is to do everything they can to protect themselves, and that includes keeping valuables out of vehicles, carrying few credit cards or displaying small electronics openly and being aware of their surroundings, police said.
Police also touched on one controversial but looming possibility to further combat crime: positioning surveillance cameras at strategic points throughout the city. But Perron said that the department must weigh seriously any policy that might infringe on privacy.
This idea is not new for Palo Alto, and the use of such systems is growing. Many residents in more burglary-prone neighborhoods have asked the department to add cameras at neighborhood entrance and exit points. The City of Oakland is planning to activate in July a $10.9 million city-wide surveillance system, dubbed the Domain Awareness Center, which uses ShotSpotter gunshot detection to activate live feeds from security cameras and license plate readers. The system is opposed by civil liberties groups.
The time may be coming for such a strategy in Palo Alto, Perron said.
"We're trending to have police department surveillance in the future," he said.
Though home-invasion robberies are rare in Palo Alto -- the last one occurred in 2010 -- robberies (where someone takes property by force or under threat) are up 15 percent. In 2012, there were 26 such crimes. In 2013, the number rose to 30, he said. The most recent were two purse snatchings by a man on a bicycle on Jan. 29.
In recent months, police have fought the crime wave with some arrests. In one incident last October, officers arrested a 17-year-old girl who allegedly punched a woman from behind and stole her purse. On Oct. 29, police arrested two 16-year-olds in connection with a violent robbery by three individuals in which a man was knocked to the ground, punched and kicked and threatened with a knife.
But despite the shocking nature of those crimes, few acts of violence occur in the city. The majority are property crimes, Perron said.
Police presented some good news at the meeting: Residential burglaries dropped 42 percent between 2012 and 2013, in large part because police made many arrests, said Cindy Hendrickson, outgoing Santa Clara County supervising deputy district attorney. And police made a significant dent in solving car burglaries with the arrest of Vernon Rayshaun Evans-Carmichael on Jan. 16. Evans-Carmichael, a San Francisco resident, is charged with 27 felonies associated with a string of auto burglaries dating back to June 2013.
"It's just good, old-fashioned police work," she said of the arrest.
But the wave of auto burglaries slammed the city hard starting about four to five months ago, particularly during the holiday season, Reifschneider said. Auto burglaries are up 70 percent over last year, and stolen vehicles are up 44 percent.
The targets are often rental cars in which visitors leave luggage and laptops in open view. Thieves hone in on restaurant parking lots and shopping malls, such as Stanford and Town and Country shopping centers, where they know people are likely to be away from their vehicles for a period of time.
Palo Alto is a prime area for such crimes because it has many visitors and business people, Reifschneider said.
Police said they have increased plainclothes officers, foot, bicycle and vehicle patrols throughout the city.
"Every crime in this city is a personal affront to us," Perron said.
But residents can do their part by remaining vigilant and reporting any suspicious activity. Tips for protecting home and person can be found on the police websites at www.cityofpaloalto.org/StopCrime and www.cityofpaloalto.org/PAPDConnect.
A complete list of crime statistics can be found on the City of Palo Alto website.