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Updated: Monday, April 8, 2013, 9:26 AM

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East Palo Alto police take a public-health approach to fighting crime

On a cloudy afternoon at Jack Farrell Park in East Palo Alto, a young girl wearing a helmet and fluorescent safety vest waited eagerly on a bike behind East Palo Alto Police Lt. Rod Norris.

"Are we leaving yet?" she asked.

The young girl and Norris are participating in Fitness Improvement Training (FIT) zones, a collaborative community effort spearheaded by the police department to make East Palo Alto's streets safer while promoting healthy living, outdoor exercise and positive relationships between community members and police officers.

Since last August, East Palo Alto police officers have led exercise activities, from bicycle rides and walking groups to volleyball and Zumba, in two designated "hotspot" neighborhoods with the highest levels of crime.

"We wanted to get people out of their homes and into their neighborhoods, to engage them in healthy activities," said East Palo Alto Captain Federico Rocha. "Not only could this positively impact their health, but by getting out, they'd also be taking back their neighborhoods."

The idea for FIT zones was born at a conference in Chicago that Police Chief Ron Davis attended in 2011.

Speaking at that conference was Dr. Anthony Iton, the senior vice president of Healthy Communities, a California Endowment initiative that promotes a public-health approach to crime and safety problems. Iton said something that resonated with Davis.

"Tell me your ZIP code, and I can tell you how long you'll live."

In the 94303, that number is significantly lower than in most areas. East Palo Alto residents' average life expectancy is 13 years less than the county-wide average, a figure that excludes death as a result of accidents and crime, according to Get Healthy San Mateo County, a San Mateo County Health System initiative.

"From there grew the idea, well, why is that?" Rocha said. "Chief Davis and I got into discussions about how maybe we need to change our prism and start looking at it from a public health perspective to bring out different approaches."

This began by law enforcement merging with public health. After using ShotSpotter, a gunfire detection system, to gather data on which city neighborhoods have the highest concentration of gun fire, the police department reached out to local public-health organizations that could help develop and execute a health-focused approach to crime.

The police department's principal public health partners became the San Mateo County Health System, the Ravenswood Family Health Center and the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California Berkeley.

Ravenswood helped to collect more data on the health of these neighborhoods, such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity rates. Ravenswood health navigators, or health educators, have also participated from the beginning, giving bi-weekly health talks on topics such as diabetes, obesity, energy drinks and how to deal with stress.

Researchers from the Warren Institute serve as FIT zones' research and evaluation arm. With Brad Jacobson, an epidemiologist from the San Mateo County Health System, they helped the police department analyze data to identify the two hotspots where the program is now implemented.

Hotspot one is between Jack Farrell Park on University Avenue and Costano Elementary School. Both locations now serve as FIT zone meeting spots for police officers, kids and parents a few times a week. Hotspot two also fell coincidentally between a park and school: Martin Luther King Park near the Baylands and Ronald McNair Middle School on Pulgas Avenue.

The Berkeley researchers also surveyed 100 residents on three topics: sense of fear and safety in their neighborhoods, levels of physical outdoor activity and feelings about their relationships with the police.

"Many of the people in these areas expressed that they had serious levels of fear and concerns about their safety in their own neighborhoods," said Sarah Lawrence, director of policy analysis and program evaluation at the Warren Institute. "These communities are fearful to use their public spaces."

But now, four afternoons a week, Martin Luther King and Jack Farrell parks are full of kids playing basketball or waiting for a police officer to take them on a bike ride and parents taking rare time to walk outside or listen to a Ravenswood health navigator talk about health topics.

"I was actually amazed at how much community involvement we got," said Sergeant David Carson, who recently took a group of kids on a bike ride to Cooley Landing. "And all it took was us to get out there and show them: You can use your local parks, you can walk outside, you can ride your bikes, you can walk your dogs without having the fears of any kind of illegal activity."

Lawrence mentioned that the fact that the police department was the one to create FIT zones makes a significant difference.

"There's a fairly good sense of a community relationship between people in the neighborhoods and the police," she said. "That was surprising compared to our work in other cities. Generally the higher-crime neighborhoods have the more strained relationships with police."

She added that an improved relationship between community and police department is one of the program's strongest long-term benefits.

These benefits would be nonexistent without the police department's most significant non-public health partner, the California Endowment. The private health foundation gave the police department a $200,000 one-year grant in February 2012 to fund the program and have since given three $20,000 grants to nonprofits in the area to pay for essentials, such as bikes or equipment.

Though the first FIT zone wasn't officially kicked off until August, five months after the grant was provided, Rocha says the police department will ask for a grant extension so they can collect and analyze full year of data.

Until Lawrence's baseline survey is given again to the same 100 residents this August, no one wants to say for sure what the program's impact has been.

But so far, so good, organizers say. Statistics have shown that at hotspot one, gun shots fired are down 60 percent. At hotspot two, 40 percent.

"Is it related to the FIT zones? If we want to be daring, we say probably, but we need more data," Rocha said. "It's a nice coincidence if that's all it is."

Regardless of gunfire levels or any discernible impact, one thing is certain: The program has grown. What started off with 40 people attending an event has, most recently, grown to 150. Each hotspot now has multiple FIT zones, which are created and coordinated by members of the community instead of police officers.

These community members, dubbed FIT zone leaders, are also working with two local nonprofits, Nuestra Casa and Youth United For Community Action, to coordinate the program.

Rocha and Carson said that any plans for expansion hinge on looking at the full year of data in August.

"It's just one of those things where we have to wait and see, but so far it's working," Carson said.

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