Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell, a former Palo Alto City Council member, addresses viewers on "Make the Call," the East Palo Alto Police Department's home-grown version of "America's Most Wanted," the popular crime-solving television show.
"Over the last 15 years, approximately 100 homicides have occurred in East Palo Alto and only half of those murders have been solved. This means that there are 50 people out there who have gotten away with murder. That's not right and you all know that's not right. ... So make the call," Cordell said.
The one-hour cable television series is one aspect of the police department's overall community-alliance building to fight crime: holding neighborhood block meetings and "Chat with the Chief" community forums; sending e-mail blasts; arranging youth summits and cultural-sensitivity training for officers.
The show spotlights East Palo Alto's cold-case homicides, mixing police and family interviews with photographs of the city's most-wanted criminals, plus holding panel discussions with community leaders on topics such as the "snitching" mentality and gaining youth trust.
Co-produced by the Midpeninsula Community Media Center in Palo Alto, the program has aired three shows since July 2008, with a new episode to be dubbed in Spanish forthcoming, Police Chief Ronald Davis said on Wednesday.
Eleven-year-old Jocelyn Sandoval faced the cameras in November, discussing the shooting death of her father, William. Her father was killed in March 2009, after a gunman fired into a crowd at an outside party, following an altercation with some of the participants.
Jocelyn spoke about not planning a birthday party, because her dad won't be there.
John Leonard, 20, was shot and killed in July 2008, after the Milpitas resident was seen possibly speaking with two young men. Leonard's 20-month-old son, John Jr., played in the Media Center's studio as photos of Leonard flashed on the screen.
"He was so excited to be a dad," Leonard's mother said, weeping.
Putting a human face on the victims and their families is part of the department's strategy to fight crime, according to Capt. Carl Estelle, the department's spokesman.
"When the media is involved they put out statistics: how many shots were fired, the victim's age. You just become a number. People don't know anything about the victim," he said.
So far, the department hasn't cracked the profiled cases, but people have come forward with leads, Estelle said.
"Make the Call" and other community-based approaches are beginning to have an effect in East Palo Alto, a community long wary of police but fed up with violent crime.
Firearm assaults are down 29 percent from 2008, helped by the ShotSpotter system to track gunfire and a greater community willingness to report crime, Estelle said.
The city's eight homicides in 2009 are a bump up from five in 2008, but are a far cry from the 42 in 1992 and the 15 killings inherited by Davis four years ago when he became chief.
The city has hit a "statistical norm," Davis said.
"I'm not satisfied. It serves as a warning. We want to stop these incidents. The difference between a homicide and assault with a deadly weapon is two inches," he said.
When violence spiked in July, a youth summit was held in October. "Operation 4th Quarter," a crackdown on gang members, launched a month early in August.
Police identified individual gang members and knocked on their doors, warning that they were being watched. Officers, community and faith leaders offered ways out of the gang life, including mentoring, education and job assistance. But those who persist in a criminal lifestyle face in-depth investigations by city, county, state and federal agencies that could result in long prison sentences, Davis said.
The program is a spin-off of the investigation and arrest of 42 criminals in "Operation Ceasefire," which broke up the city's notorious Taliban gang in March 2009.
The effort has again paid off, Davis and Estelle said.
The fourth quarter of the year is historically the most crime-filled in the city. There were 23 shootings in December 2008 — nine people were shot in a five-day period, according to Davis.
By December's end in 2009, firearm assaults were down 82 percent — just four shootings — and there were no homicides, according to Estelle.
David Woods, East Palo Alto's mayor, is pleased with the results.
"Although we have a way to go, the relationship between the police department and the community is better than it has ever been before. A lot of ... the reduction in crime is due to the leadership of Chief Ron Davis and the community's willingness to cooperate and take ownership," Woods said.
"The culture has changed in that the things that used to be acceptable as crimes are not acceptable anymore. People heard gunshots and had no reaction — that was normal."
The economy has caused economically based crimes such as burglaries, robberies and larcenies to spike in 2009, bumping up the overall crime rate to 11 percent, according to Estelle.
But Davis is ready to start a program of "advanced community policing" that gets at the root causes of crime, not just chase the bad guys, he said. Programs that address poverty, school drop-out rates, unemployment, substance abuse and other social issues are being developed in collaboration with the city's nonprofit groups, he said.
In the three years since the Parolee Reentry program began, offering counseling, and help with education and job opportunities, only 15 percent of ex-cons have returned to crime, he said.
"Over three years, the homicide rate has dropped 29 percent and overall crime is down 16 percent. No entity could ever take credit for that reduction. It comes from the community," he said.