A string of 20 robberies in Palo Alto neighborhoods is among the most serious some officers have seen in their careers because the robbers are using guns, police officials said during a community meeting to address the crimes Wednesday night (Jan. 19).
But they assured more than 150 residents at Cubberley Theatre that the department is putting every resource it has to help track down the criminals and curtail the armed robberies that have gripped the city since September. Even police Chief Dennis Burns' home has been burglarized, one officer disclosed.
The meeting was serious but laced with humor and occasional brief, heated exchanges, and residents thanked the department for its efforts.
A panel of the department's top brass discussed the nature of the crimes before a concerned but mild-mannered crowd: why police think they are happening, what the department is doing to stop the robberies; and what residents can do to protect themselves and help the department capture the criminals.
Police also discussed what they believe is the proper use of the city's emergency-alert phone and e-mail system, Alert SCC, which some neighborhood leaders have said they want activated when robberies occur.
The robberies are considered a particularly serious problem because many have involved guns, Palo Alto Mayor Sid Espinosa told the crowd.
Lt. Scott Wong agreed.
"In my 29 years, we haven't had a robbery string like this when people are coming up to you with guns."
But "this thing will subside," he said.
Espinosa expressed confidence that the robberies will be brought under control.
"I have faith in the police department," he said.
Robberies are cyclical, Palo Alto police Chief Dennis Burns said.
"It's our turn. People in neighboring communities who want to commit a crime think Palo Alto is the place to do it," he said.
Eight people have been arrested for six of the robberies and more individuals are under investigation, he said. The perpetrators have come from a range of cities, including Menlo Park, Redwood City and East Palo Alto, police said.
The department has assigned nine of its 13 detectives to work on the robberies and many officers are patrolling all neighborhoods -- some in plain clothes and unmarked cars, he said.
Det. James Reifschneider said the robberies are not just happening in any one neighborhood. Suspect descriptions are of a diverse group of individuals who have been largely described as African American and Pacific Islander.
"We haven't eliminated that several different groups are out there," he said.
A half dozen East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park residents attended the meeting, sitting quietly as a Palo Alto man said he believed in racial profiling.
"We came out as good neighbors out of concern," East Palo Alto resident Willie Beasley said afterward.
"What we are trying to do is bridge the Tower of Babel in East Palo Alto -- of the different races trying to coincide in this little box," he said.
The lack of jobs among young men who are out of work (East Palo Alto has a 20 percent unemployment rate) has pushed some to crime, he said.
"Palo Alto could be helpful. Palo Alto is a well-heeled city," he said. The city's residents "have a moral duty" to help the struggling community gain stable economic ground. Palo Alto must help build foundations for the future, he said.
"If not, they're going to spend a lot of money on crime prevention," he said.
A five-year comparison does not show an increase in robberies over the year, but the problem is of concern because the 20 have occurred in the last few months, he said.
Sgt. Zach Perron, a Palo Alto native who attended local schools, said the department has changed staffing levels to include patrol officers, the traffic team, two members of the crime-suppression team and swing-shift officers to bolster those assigned to the robberies.
The city has been divided into zones that are all covered by uniformed and plain-clothes officers and detectives, he said. But he admitted spotting the robbers is a difficult prospect.
"It's like a needle in a haystack," he said.
Robbery waves have happened before and been quashed, he added.
"In 2006, we had a serious robbery trend in the north end of town, We dedicated more cops and it solved and deterred the crime," he said.
The department used to have more than 100 officers, but now it is down to 91 due to budget cuts, Burns said. He said the department has made its share of cuts just as any other city department.
"We can't have any sacred cows," he said.
Perron said he has heard the public say they think the department has 100, 60 or 25 officers on the street at any one time, but the real figures are far starker:
Minimum staffing from 7 a.m. to midnight includes six officers and two supervisors. From midnight to 5 a.m., there are five officers and two supervisors. And from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., there are five officers and one supervisor.
The maximum number of officers are 12 with three supervisors, he said.
"There are far less than 50 percent of what people think are out there," he said.
Perron said residents can help the department by trusting their instincts and calling police when "the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That's when you pick up the phone and call the police.
"We've had people call to report a squirrel having a heart attack. If those people can call, you can pick up the phone and call when someone is hiding in the bushes," he said.
Police addressed recent concerns by neighborhood leaders that the city's emergency-alert phone and texting system, AlertSCC, hasn't been activated during the robberies.
Palo Alto has the third busiest 911-call service in Santa Clara County, behind San Jose and Santa Clara, Charlie Cullen, technical services director, said. Dispatch handles about 100 such 911 calls per day, or 36,000 per year, he said.
Police look at each incident to see if it warrants using AlertSCC, but they don't want to wake up the entire neighborhood in the middle of the night when robbers have already fled the area, he said. The system has been used when a suspect is jumping fences and going through neighborhoods, he said.
Lt. Sandra Brown, head of personnel and training, said the department is looking at other ways to get the word out to residents other than using AlertSCC.
She has sent out 14 robbery-related press releases and works closely with the media on a day-to-day basis. Residents can get news of crime right away through Palo Alto Online or read about it the next day in the newspaper, she said.
Residents are one of the most valuable crime-fighting tools in the department's arsenal, Officer Kenneth Dueker, coordinator of Homeland Security for the city manager's office, said.
The Palo Alto Neighborhoods Block Preparedness Coordinator Program, which teaches neighborhood coordination and emergency preparedness, makes residents partners in crime solving rather than victims, he said.
"I'll throw out a challenge tonight to go out and meet your neighbors, You should have some basis about what is abnormal. Knowing your neighbors you get to know what's normal or abnormal" for a neighborhood, he said.
Police stressed that even they have been victims of crime in the current economic climate.
Lt. Doug Keith of the field services division, said a robbery occurred 300 feet from his home. And even Chief Burns' home was burglarized.
"A crime-prevention tip from the Burns family: We got a dog. It would probably lick you to death -- but he has a good bark," Burns said.