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New crime-fighting project to hit EPA streets

Fitness, medical care will help police combat violence in city's 'hot spots'

East Palo Alto police are planning to fight crime with doctor's visits and a cops-and-residents fitness program in addition to batons and guns. The department's new crime-fighting strategy will focus on the city's most violent neighborhoods and has won approval for its first grant, East Palo Alto police Chief Ronald Davis said Tuesday (June 21).

Two neighborhood "hot spots" will be targeted for the special crime-prevention methods, he said.

The innovative program will get $10,000 for the planning stages from the California Endowment, a private, statewide health foundation, Davis said.

The impetus for the idea came in March, when Davis attended a California Endowment forum and was surprised to learn of a well-established connection between crime and public health. Despite the correlation, however, few partnerships exist in which law enforcement and public health agencies work together to address the twin issues of health and safety, he said.

The program will build on the California Endowment's Building Healthy Communities Initiative. It will identify neighborhoods where crime and violence have been highest in the past five years. Public-health experts will gather the health data, he said.

In the new Fitness Improvement Training (FIT) zones, police officers will be assigned to participate with residents in activities such as walking, jogging and bike riding -- physical activities that many residents are currently reluctant to engage in because of street crime, according to Davis.

As each community increases its outdoor activities on the streets and in parks, residents will improve their health and regain control of their neighborhood, he said in a project summary.

"As chief, I'm extremely excited about this project and what it will do for the community. If people are walking, riding and running, how do you sell drugs?" he said.

Public-health officials will also provide mobile health services within the neighborhoods, Davis said. The department has seen a connection between crime reduction and health care needs.

The city's Operation Ceasefire crime-reduction program found that among gang members who were offered services in exchange for giving up violence, the most common first request among participants is for "immediate" medical and dental services, he said.

Creating a relationship between the police and residents could increase public trust and confidence in the department, he added.

East Palo Alto, incorporated in 1983, is only 2.6 square miles, but it has violence rates five to 10 times a city its size, the summary noted.

"The level of violence is staggering when considering that the City of San Jose, one of the largest cities in the San Francisco Bay Area with close to 1 million people, averages approximately 40 homicides on an annual basis," Davis said of East Palo Alto's most violent year, 1992, when 42 people were killed.

Violent crime has steadily decreased, but in 2008, with eight murders, the city still had the 10th highest murder rate among 291 California cities with a population exceeding 20,000 persons, according to his report.

In 2010, through steady pressure on criminals and innovative policing strategies, the number of murders dropped to four, but the continual threat of gangs and violence persists, he said.

East Palo Alto has an estimated 19 percent unemployment rate, and only 22 percent of Ravenswood City School District elementary school children read above the 50th percentile, according to the project summary.

The California Endowment grant will be used to cover costs for the first of three phases. The three-month-long Phase 1 will include developing public-health partnerships with the Ravenswood Family Health Clinic, Stanford Medical Center and San Mateo County Health and Human Services, among others.

The first phase will also identify and map the two hot spots, gather health data on diseases, mortality rates, obesity and existing health services and survey residents on health, fear of crime and their evaluation of police and health services. It will also develop a health and safety plan.

Davis said the project could begin this July.

Phase 2 will focus on implementation of health services for high-risk offenders and their families and residents in the fitness-improvement zones. Davis said he plans to meet with California Endowment officials in August about Phase 2 funding.

Phase 3 would assess changes in crime and health improvements, the success of the community outdoor activities and final residents' surveys.

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