Sharon Lee-Nakayama moved into Altaire Walk, a residential community in south Palo Alto, as soon as it opened in 2010 and for the first decade she didn't have to worry about crime.
Then things changed abruptly in March 2020, just as the pandemic was kicking off. Packages started disappearing from the condominium complex, which is located near San Antonio Road, next to the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center. Bikes went missing from the garage, which is at the ground level of the gated community. Cars were getting broken into. Mailboxes were routinely ransacked.
The thieves, she said, also became more brazen. One day, they broke into the mailbox bank with a crowbar and stole everyone's mail. When the mailbox was repaired, the thieves managed to steal the master key to the mailbox bank and opened it, once again stealing mail that in many cases contained personal information.
The trend has continued unabated since then and it's taken a toll on the community, which includes 103 residences, Lee-Nakayama told this news organization. Neighbors have become vigilant, sharing stories of recent theft and photos of perpetrators. Children who play outside are now suspicious whenever they see strangers. And aside from a few cases, police have not been able to offer much help. Lee-Nakayama, who serves on the board of the Altaire Walk housing association, said she and her neighbors have shared photos of the thieves and their vehicles. That didn't help. A conversation with a Palo Alto police officer who was informed about the crime wave also went nowhere.
"The person basically said to me that there's nothing they can do about it, that their hands are tied," she said.
This week, residents took their concerns to the City Council by submitting a petition describing their predicament and urging a more proactive approach by the city to prevent crimes. Within days, the petition launched by Lee-Nakayama had 107 signatures.
"We have provided the police with many videos of the crimes being committed, clear pictures of the perpetrators, pictures of cars, pictures of the license plates, etc. Nothing is done," the petition states. "The SAME criminals come back week after week, often multiple times on the same week, terrorizing our community and children."
On Monday, Lee-Nakayama and some of her neighbors made their case directly to the council. Altaire Walk resident Scott Yoo recalled an incident when his wife was preparing to pick up their children from school when she noticed a stranger with a mask sitting inside her minivan in the complex parking lot.
"She was scared, very afraid, but she had to pick up her kids anyway," Scott Yoo said. "She stepped closer and knocked on the window, and that really scared the guy too. He opened the door and just ran away."
The thieves, he said, have become confident that they can come into Palo Alto and steal people's belongings with impunity.
"They have the confidence that they will never get caught because of a lack of resources we have," Yoo said.
Paige Cook, who recently moved to Altaire Walk, recalled an incident in January, when she walked to the garage to retrieve her locked bike and, as she was exiting, noticed an individual whom she'd never seen in the community before take two packages from inside the mailroom. She then noticed the man take a belonging from a rack and then start "shopping bicycles."
"Feeling my Mama Bear instincts kick in, I said, 'Hey, you're stealing.' He started coming toward me and I felt very nervous," Cook told the council.
She watched the man walk into a car and drive away without any other confrontations. Then, two days later, as she was leaving to pick up her children from school in the afternoon, she saw the same person in the upstairs portion of the community, "shopping" the front doors of residents' homes.
"That is what really, really infuriated me, is that the same gentlemen were now inside the community where our children play," Cook said.
In January alone, there were at least three occurrences of theft, according to resident Ivan Kissiov. He urged the council to make public safety a priority.
"It's over 100 families and when something happens, 100 people feel it," Kissiov said. "We are a community, we are all experiencing it."
Both Mayor Pat Burt and City Manager Ed Shikada assured the residents that they are taking their concerns seriously, even as Shikada emphasized that the issue of residential burglaries is not unique to Palo Alto or to Altaire Walk.
Shikada said the Police Department will remain engaged with Altaire Walk residents and inform them about steps they plan to take to curb the thefts.
"Obviously, this is an issue that's evolving and one that we will stay in touch on but I do want to assure that our communication lines remain open throughout this and appreciate the difficult issues that residents are experiencing," Shikada said Monday.
He also said the city will "bring all our existing resources to bear" to address the problem.
Resources, however, remain an issue. Burt recalled the staffing cuts that the council made in the department in 2020 as part of its effort to slash about $40 million in spending in response to falling revenues. While city revenues have somewhat recovered since then and the council plans to restore some services, Burt underscored that police staffing remains a problem.
"I fully appreciate that our Police Department has been slashed in its staffing in the last two years and we're asking our Police Department to respond to its share of a regional uptick that is significant… with significantly less staffing," Burt aaid. "I fully appreciate that's a constraint on their ability to do investigations and take preventative measures and all kinds of things that they'd be doing in response to this."
Even acknowledging these limitations, Burt requested that Shikada provide a more in-depth report in the future about how the city is responding to the wave of thefts, as well as what it would take for the city to have the resources to respond more effectively.
The message from the Police Department has been mixed, Lee-Nakayama said. Though the officers she has spoken to have pointed to a lack of resources as the main reason they can't do more to prevent thefts, shortly after the petition was submitted she received a message from Chief Robert Jonsen assuring them that the department is filling its vacancies and that more will be done.
While the issue of crime prevention naturally feels close to home, Lee-Nakayama said she and her neighbors want to see the city make it a higher priority across Palo Alto. She pointed to other cities in the Bay Area where mayors have made crime prevention a priority, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed's recent efforts to highlight the issues in the Tenderloin district. With the Palo Alto City Council preparing to set its priorities for the year on Saturday, Lee-Nakayama said she hopes crime prevention will make the list.
"I think we all want Palo Alto to be a front-runner on this issue," Lee-Nakayama said.