Fearful residents press city for emergency alerts

Recent armed robberies prompt call for greater use of Palo Alto's notification system

How often is too often to be notified of crime happening in one's neighborhood?

In the wake of a string of armed robberies in Palo Alto, residents are saying there's no such thing as too much information.

The city's emergency-alert system, AlertSCC, issues a recorded phone message, e-mail or text message regarding crises such as power outages and impending floods. Palo Alto police say they want to reserve the alert system for significant events so that people won't become complacent by receiving too many calls.

But residents of neighborhoods hit by the recent armed robberies argue the system was designed for notifications about dangerous suspects who could be lurking in the neighborhood after a violent crime.

The system is already used for non-emergencies. It alerted residents on Jan. 7 to street closures before the following day's parade downtown for Palo Alto High School athletes.

Around midnight following the parade, a robber pointed a gun at a woman and stole her purse in the driveway of her Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood home near Oregon Expressway.

"Neighbors seem not to have received any emergency notification that this was occurring or had occurred -- and that an armed assailant was at large. And this, after years of work to institute an emergency alerting system in the first place," Karen White, president of the Duveneck/St. Francis Neighborhood Association, said.

But Police Chief Dennis Burns said the robber fled the area immediately after committing the crime.

"I think the community would have been upset with us if we had sent out a CANS Alert (now AlertSCC) given the hour of the incident. Also, since the suspect was no longer in the area there was no urgency to unnecessarily wake folks up," Burns wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly.

Police also issued a press release regarding the robbery before the end of the midnight shift, and the Weekly posted it on its PaloAltoOnline website at 7:34 a.m. on Saturday morning, he said.

"We want to inform the public about what is going on in their neighborhood; however, the AlertSCC is something that we want to use for significant issues where there is an immediate life-safety issue or there is a significant disruption to an area. We are concerned that if we use the system too often we can desensitize the community members," he said.

He added that there is no additional cost to the city when sending a notification.

Police spokeswoman Lt. Sandra Brown on Thursday echoed Burns' sentiments that the system should not be over used.

"I want to wake you up at 3 in the morning if your neighborhood is on fire, not at 2:30 if a robbery occurs several blocks away," she said.

Brown has sent out 14 press releases related to the robberies, she said.

Heather Galanis, a longtime resident of Triple El, an enclave of 58 Eichler-style homes north of Oregon Expressway where a robbery occurred in December, said the number of incidents that rise to the level of an alert have been few over the years.

"In all of the years that I've lived here, we've only had something like that happen twice. I remember a couple of decades ago when a young man broke into a home, helicopters got up there with loud speakers. People came out of their homes. (Some residents) ran down the street and found him behind a bush," she said.

Galanis said she thinks the city should interview residents before saying they will become complacent.

"I'd like to see to see some proof of that," she said.

The Midtown neighborhood where Annette Glanckopf lives has also been hit by violent crime.

She said she has met twice with police about using AlertSCC for incidents and this week called for more discussion. Glanckopf is chair of the Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) emergency-preparedness committee.

She said Burns makes a good argument for not using the system to wake people in the middle of the night, but she doubts alerts about robberies would desensitize people.

"That type of incident is exactly what we want" the system to be activated for, she said.

Burns and Brown said the department is working on outreach and some technology tools and is exploring various social media. A community meeting is planned for Wednesday, Jan. 19, at 7 p.m., at the Cubberley Theater at 4000 Middlefield Road.

Related material:

Police to hold community meeting on robberies

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Like this comment
Posted by Maybe-We-Have-Enuf-Info
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2011 at 12:20 pm

What would anyone do with any additional information? Between the Weekly's fairly rapid response to notifications by the city government for various situations, and the two daily (local) papers, notifications about robberies get a fair amount of public exposure.

As pointed out in the article above, lone robbers tend to exit the scene of the crime as quickly as possible, and so any effort to notify residents, even in the neighborhood, are not likely to help arrest the perpetrators. Perhaps an email to people in a 500 foot radius to ask for any information about "strangers" in the area would be helpful, but that probably would mean a better use of GIS data base technology than the PA Police are interested in involving themselves.

If there were anything that contacted residents could do to help the police, or even better protect themselves, maybe additional contact would be worth it. It would be nice if the PA Police were to use their web site to better document these sorts of crimes, but they don't seem to "get it".

Like this comment
Posted by pares
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 14, 2011 at 12:36 pm

The reason I would like some notification is that if there is a gun wielding robber in the immediate neighborhood, I don't want to go out when it's dark to walk the dog or just to take a short stroll.

Sometimes criminals do stay in the area looking for the next victim.

I don't know if a phone tree warning would work fast enough. Maybe that would alarm people too much. Or, maybe it would give us a false sense of security if there has been no warning. I'd like to hear other people's opinion on this topic.

Thank you to the police for the good work they have already done in catching the robbers. Wonder why we have this sudden appearance of so many using a weapon.

Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Please note the revised time and date of the Community Meeting.

The Palo Alto Police Department will be hosting a Community Awareness Meeting on Wednesday evening, 7:00 pm, January 19, 2011 at the Cubberley Theater at 4000 Middlefield Road.

Like this comment
Posted by I have enough
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2011 at 1:24 pm

The constant repetition about robberies has reached a point where I ignore them. People do need to be reminded to behave in a safe manner, but it's getting to be too much.
Thanks to the police, I think they are doing their best.

Like this comment
Posted by Midtowner
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2011 at 2:19 pm

I really, really, do not want to receive notifications of robberies via CANS.

It seems very unlikely that a message on CANS about a nearby robbery will be of any use to me. I will either have been unlucky enough to be near the spot already, or as others have noted, the robber will be long gone.

There seems to be a strong temptation for people with a public announcement system to use it to make lots of non-helpful, but distracting, announcements. Please try to resist it with CANS.

Like this comment
Posted by RSS user
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 14, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Does the police department have an RSS field or e-mail list for these press releases? Often, crime reports do not appear in the Palo Alto Weekly for several days, if at all. A direct way to access these reports, other than digging through the city web site every day, would be very helpful.

Like this comment
Posted by Bruce Li
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 15, 2011 at 8:39 am

Certainly if the police have a robbery suspect surrounded in a neighborhood by a perimeter of officers then the CANS alert would be appropriate. I DO NOT want to be awakened or called while I'm asleep to be notified that a robbery had just occurred in my neighborhood. Unless the police know the suspect is hopping fences and hiding out in a neighborhood, then he is long gone within minutes! If he does try to get into my house then he can meet my friend Roscoe!

Like this comment
Posted by Use some common sense
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 15, 2011 at 12:25 pm

A couple of years ago we found out a sex offender was living in our neighborhood; then we realized a nearby home was occupied by a number of parolees. Just because we live in PA doesn't mean we are necessarily living in a safe environment.

Contrary to many of my neighbors who park their cars either on their driveway or on the street; I drive directly into my garage and close the garage door before unloading my car and entering my house. There are always ways you can help yourself and not leave either yourself or your car exposed on a driveway.

Like this comment
Posted by Joey
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 15, 2011 at 7:52 pm

The police is NOT doing enough. Alerts are necessary because we need to keep watch for ourselves - obviously we are not being properly protected by the police.

It is only a matter of time until one of these robberies ends with a Palo Altan shot at point blank range... This is why we need to always be aware.

Like this comment
Posted by Ha!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 15, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Joey, you expect to have a policeman on every block of Palo Alto? Only in a pipedream. It's not easy being a Palo Alto police officer. They put up with a lot abuse from ungrateful people. They risk their lives for us. You should suit up and find out for yourself.

Like this comment
Posted by Neal
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 15, 2011 at 9:19 pm

I agree with Ha! I'm confident the police are doing the best they can to protect us and I'm greatful.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 15, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Here we go again!

After the Herbert Kay murder, there was a big uproar. There were statements about "Palo Alto has lost its innocense...". Perhpas, but Palo Alto always falls back into a naivete about crime. The crime does not go away, but it only casues a major public concern when it clusters.

The Palo Alto cops are not the problem. They have been handcuffed by concerns about profiling. Why should they take a chance on aggressive, pro-active policing? They are in reactive mode, only.

If things get bad enough, Palo Altans will scream louder, but there won't be any effective response. It is up to each individual to protect himself or herself. This can happen by defensive measures, such as driving aroung the block a couple of times, before parking at one's own home, or buying an attack dog, or carrying a gun/mace. Just don't expect the cops to protect you...they are now restricted to taking evidence.

Bottom line: Stop whining.

Like this comment
Posted by profiler
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 15, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Who do you want to profile? Just as many violent crimes in Palo Alto are committed by white people as by non-white people. The suspects in 2 recent rapes were white men (may or may not be the same assailant). Do you want the cops to stop and question all white men in town just because 1 or 2 are thugs?

Like this comment
Posted by More-Hi-Tech
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 16, 2011 at 9:10 am

> the police are doing as much as they can ..

There were a spate of robberies in Palo Alto some years back (maybe five years ago). There was a huge outcry, so Lynn Johnson and the City Manager's Office decided to "recruit" all of the City employees who were out-and-about in their vehicles to become "the eyes of the police". While a nice photo op, nothing came of these "extra eyes". As it turned out. The police finally cracked the case by reviewing the surveillance recordings from some restaurant parking lots where vehicle break-ins had occurred. As it turned out, some "Fagin"-like ring-leader was recruiting youths to do the actual break-ins. This "team" operated out of Oakland. Without the surveillance cameras, the Police would not have been successful in cracking this case (or as quickly as they did).

The Palo Alto police do not use surveillance equipment in a systematic way. The use of surveillance cameras to record vehicle license numbers(at a minimum) would provide the police with a possible list of suspects, based on vehicle movement in the areas where crimes were committed. If the same vehicle were to be in the location of more than one crime, this would be a "red flag" for further investigation.

Because digital cameras are smaller than ever, these cameras could be moved about easily, depending on where crimes have been occurring.

There is also the issue of having software to "read" these digital recordings, to reduce the amount of police time obtaining necessary information from these digital files.

Some city governments are now using drones to overfly areas, providing both recorded, and real-time, observation data.

While some of this suggestion requires a long-term commitment to "hi-tech" policing and can not be utilized for this particular problem immediately, unless the police are involved in obtaining and using state-of-the-art technology, they are probably not doing enough.

Like this comment
Posted by Don't become a target
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 16, 2011 at 9:33 am

Cameras are not the answer because someone has to watch the feedback 24/7. The cost of hiring people to monitor the cameras would be excessive that is why the City has always opposed their use in the past. Cameras are only useful after a crime has been committed and the tapes of a camera in the vicinity can be examined for evidence.

The answer to neighborhood muggings lies with individual homeowner and their neighbors, be watchful. Put your car in the garage before getting out of it. There are ways people can help themselves and not become a target.

Like this comment
Posted by Don't become a target
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 16, 2011 at 10:01 am

Another way to help yourself from house burglars is to remove trees and bushes from your front and side yard. Trees and bushes may give you privacy but they also provide concealment for anyone attempting to break-in to your house. It also makes it more difficult for a neighbor to view your house easily. It is a fact that house break-ins occur far more often at houses that are surrounded by tall bushes and hedges.

Like this comment
Posted by More-Hi-Tech
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 16, 2011 at 10:18 am

> Cameras are not the answer because someone has to watch the
> feedback 24/7

This is simply not true. The suggestion as laid out in the initial posting should have been clear enough to make that point. Obviously, some people don't understand how to use digital technology.

The premise is that cameras would be located in various locations that would allow the recording of vehicle license plates (at least), in a continuous fashion. Software now exists (called automatic license plate readers) that allows for an almost instantaneous extraction of the license plate numbers. One approach would be to have this software extract the numbers, and the time stamps from the digital stream, and keep these "on file" for a week or two, and if there is no need for this information, it would be automatically deleted. Under this scenario, no no humans would be involved, outside installing the cameras.

Other scenarios would have police officers reviewing digital recordings only after a crime is reported. Given that the time interval for such review would be short, the amount of human time involved would be minimal.

Automatic Number Plate Recognition:
Web Link

There are many possibilities here. It's amazing that people living in the middle of the Silicon Valley have no knowledge of what is possible in the digital world.

Like this comment
Posted by Oh Please
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 16, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Hey Joey,

There have been 20 robberies over the past few months. The police arrested 8 suspects so far. I suspect thats a far better ratio than other cities. This obviously isn't one person or one group.

If you think you could do a better job, why don't you go see if you can pass the back ground test, the physch test, the medical exam, the drug test, the polygraph test, and go out there do something productive. Get off their back.

AS for those who want more notification. Careful what you ask for. Most these robberies are happening when most people are sleeping. Would we have all wanted to be woken up 20 times since September???? I think not. Early post has it right. If the police are actively chasing or surrounding the suspect in a particular neighborhood, notifications make complete sense.

Like this comment
Posted by Monroe
a resident of Monroe Park
on Jan 17, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Though I appreciate the Alert system for warnings and information on events such as major power outages and floods that are affecting most or all of the community, I am opposed to extending emergency notification calls to all residents for everything.

I do NOT want calls for every crime or problem in all of Palo Alto.

Not only do I NOT need to know immediately of a robbery, for instance, 4 miles away, I think that that sort of fear just exacerbates and exaggerates fear of crime – a fear that produces many unfortunate results for the community and our society.

Like this comment
Posted by danger to society
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 17, 2011 at 6:09 pm

The police have a 911 system for emergency calls and a separate number for non-emergencies. They need to have the reverse to release information to the public. Use CANS if there is am immediate danger. If not, have a web site or RSS feed or e-mail list to release important but non-emergency information.

Many other police departments do this. Some are even using Facebook. Why isn't our police department more high tech? There is a police log on the city web site, but that is difficult to read and not regularly updated (the last entry is 3 days ago).

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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