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May 18, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Our Town: Of violence and respect Our Town: Of violence and respect (May 18, 2005)

by Don Kazak

It's scarier now because I can't have my little sister go outside," a Latino youth said.

He was one of eight young people -- six high school students and two recent graduates -- who participated in a round-table discussion May 2 about how street violence in East Palo Alto is touching their lives.

The four shooting deaths so far this year has people who remember 1992 feeling nervous, even though they pale compared to the 42 homicides that year, largely drug-related.

Much has changed since 1992. The University Circle office towers replaced the old Whiskey Gulch, a Four Seasons luxury hotel is nearing completion, and a thriving regional shopping center anchored by huge IKEA and Home Depot stores bring thousands of shoppers -- and their dollars -- to the city every week.

But the up-tick in street shootings last year prompted Rose Jacobs Gibson, a former East Palo Alto mayor and current San Mateo County supervisor, to form the East Palo Alto Crime Reduction Task Force. As part of that effort, the nonprofit group One East Palo Alto has held three meetings to talk about prevention and alternatives for young people.

At the most recent of those meetings, May 2, the City Council chambers filled with people who had something to say. They had some startling things to hear, too, from the young panelists.

And it wasn't all about street violence. Part of it was about the police -- what they're not doing, and doing.

"There's too much violence, too much drug dealing in the streets," a black girl said. "The police don't do anything."

"The police aren't doing their job," a young Pacific Islander woman said. "If they did their job, to serve and protect the community, we wouldn't have drug dealers and we wouldn't have people dying."

"The cops will stop you and start screaming and cussing you out," a Latino boy said. "And you really can't talk back to a police officer. They think you're selling drugs."

"I would like to see people treated with a little more respect," a girl said. "We have police that assume you're doing something wrong. They disrespect you. They come out disrespecting you, and it's hard to respect someone who doesn't respect you."

These were, as Executive Director Faye McNair-Knox of One EPA said, the good kids, "not the kids on the corner."

Then came the zinger.

The Pacific Islander woman started to say what should be done but choked up and started crying.

"My family went through a lot with the police," she finally said, without being specific. "I think the police force we have now should be fired. They're basically not doing their job."

The crowded room hushed, her words hanging in the air.

Several officers, including interim Chief Steve Belcher, were listening. A new chief is about to be hired and Belcher, a retired Santa Cruz chief, stepped in seven months ago to hold the fort, almost literally.

"I heard fear, frustration and mistrust," Belcher later said at the meeting. "It tells me we have a lot of work to do."

It's not surprising that some of the anger has turned against the police. Some of the people shot down have been innocent bystanders, including a 15-year-old boy standing in his front yard last August.

"They don't even know who they're shooting at," one panelist said.

The four homicides so far this year don't sound like much compared to 13 years ago. But the shiny new stores were supposed to symbolize East Palo Alto shedding its troubled past and moving on.

Belcher has asked the city to fund four more officer positions, to be filled by San Mateo County Sheriff's deputies, two for investigations and two for street patrols -- it takes six to 12 months to recruit and train new officers. The council hasn't yet acted on that request.

The department is funded for 48 officers but is currently 10 short. Six officers are on various forms of leave, and there are four vacancies. "Twenty percent of my officers are missing, for whatever reason," Belcher said.

"From where we were, we're light years ahead. From where we want to be, we're light years behind."

Weekly Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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