"When I first got hired, the benchmark was murder capital," he said, referring to 1992, a particularly violent year in which the city suffered 42 reported murders and infamously had the highest per-capita murder rate in the U.S. "Now people get nervous when there are two or three shootings in a week ... and the fact that peoples' benchmarks are much lower reflects that their tolerance is much lower — that's positive, but it needs to be much lower. It should be normal for us to have zero or one murders per year like any other community our size."
Since Davis signed on to be police chief of the 29,000-person town where violence has been a seemingly intractable issue, murders have fallen 63 percent, from 15 in 2005 to seven in 2012, and overall crime has fallen 33 percent, from 1,699 to 1,124 in the same time period, according to a police report to the City Council.
Davis will officially leave Nov. 8 to accept a job as director of the Community-Oriented Policing Services Office in the U.S. Department of Justice.
Davis, a 20-year veteran of the Oakland Police Department, joined the department with reform in mind, particularly regarding the police's relationship with the community. He touted a community-oriented policing strategy, which sought to address the root problems at the core of crime and violence in the city rather than fighting only their symptoms, he said.
Activities related to this strategy included California's first-ever, local-police-led prisoner re-entry program; "call-in" meetings in which police and community members met with those involved in gangs, drugs or violence to propose alternatives; collaboration with nearby law enforcement agencies to target gang activity; and data analysis of the city's Shotspotter acoustic gunshot-detection system.
Of special importance was the idea of building better relationships between the police and community members, a connection that has historically been strained, City Manager Magda Gonzalez said. Gonzalez praised the chief for his efforts to strengthen relationships as well as his work professionalizing and improving his department reputation with the public.
Not everyone in the community shares Gonzalez' opinion of Davis' success. Community activist Dana McKean said he felt Davis didn't reach out to the community as much as he was given credit for.
"I didn't see a difference in how police treated people as far as actually seeing them getting out of their cars and talking to people," he said. "Even at the events (they held) they could have done a lot more reaching out."
That sentiment was echoed by Johnnie Gray, the founder of the East Palo Alto Boxing Club. Gray, who runs the club primarily for the benefit of at-risk youth, said he often invited the chief to send police officers by his gym to meet the kids who trained there, a move he felt was an obvious step in bringing police closer to the community. He said officers never came.
"If you're trying to build relationships and solve crime, they should have come to the program," he said. "The way these young people are around here they can watch someone get shot, and if the police pull up they'll say: 'I ain't seen nothing.'
"Start being involved; start building a relationship. That's how you'll get some of these damned crimes solved. How're you going to solve a crime without a relationship?"
Gray said the police's lack of interest in his gym reflected what he felt was favoritism for police-affiliated and -sponsored programs, particularly in receiving funds from Measure C, a parcel tax that aimed to equally support police operations and violence-prevention programs.
Gray said he felt Davis used his clout in the city to unfairly steer Measure C funds to police-affiliated violence-prevention programs like its re-entry program, leaving out other local organizations that serve at-risk youth, whom they felt deserved equal attention from the measure.
"What these kids need is after-school activities; they need jobs. We're really supposed to have that kind of stuff," he said. "Every year like clockwork the police department got their money, but when it came down to getting that money to prevent violence it's always a fight."
(Gray's gym and the Drew Health Center Inc. received $60,000 in Measure C money aimed at supporting families of high and at-risk youth on Wednesday night.)
Stewart Hyland, who serves on the city's Measure C oversight committee and supports the idea of community-oriented policing, said he saw the chief as charismatic and idealistic about his policing strategy but felt that it was lost on many of the officers who were to carry it out. But some of the officers did get it, he said, and he credited the chief with always being open to at least hearing community members' concerns at public meetings.
However, he said a mentality within the department that the only people who are shot in East Palo Alto are the ones who are guilty has persisted, despite the strategy that focused in part on humanizing those involved in violence.
All three men decried the lack of solved murders in a city so small, a fact which Davis was very familiar with, particularly in 2013, which he described as probably the second-most violent year in his tenure, with eight murders and nearly 100 assaults with a firearm so far.
"I bet you that 75 to 85 percent of the murders, we definitely know who did it," he said. "But if you want to bring a murder case to the DA, it's tough without any witnesses."
He said he tried to address what he saw as the three core reasons for the "no-snitch mentality" that is pervasive in communities across the country. People's fear of retaliation had a simple solution — offering methods of anonymously tipping the police such as text, email or phone message. But the deeper issues — that snitching is considered "the wrong thing to do" and the inherent distrust many community members feel for the police — were what he hoped to address with community-oriented policing.
When asked about the success of the chief's strategy in improving the community-police relationship, Gonzalez pointed to a 2012 survey commissioned by the former city manager ML Gordon in 2011 that queried 400 randomly selected residents by phone of their perceptions of various city issues, including public safety and police-community relationships. The survey found that 38 percent of respondents felt the relationship between the police and the community was better than it was five years ago, 44 percent stated the relationship was about the same, 3 percent said it was worse and 14 percent said they were unsure.
The same survey found that 61 percent of respondents felt that the city had become a safer place to live than five years prior, 27 felt the same and 6 percent felt it was less safe.
William Webster, a Measure C oversight commissioner and self-described City Council watchdog, said one the areas the chief truly shined was in fundraising.
A report by the police showed that over the years the department has raised $10.7 million to support various police programs, including a $3.5 million grant for parole re-entry, two federal grants to support community-oriented policing that add up to more than $1 million and $300,000 in funds raised from private donors and foundations.
Hyland said this last figure is of particular note. Other police chiefs had won federal grants to support activities in cash-strapped East Palo Alto, but Hyland said Davis was unique in that he was able to successfully solicit donations and grants from private sources and foundations.
The funds also helped Davis strengthen the department. According to a report by the chief, the department has hired six new officers in the last year, despite the fact that staffing and overtime expenditures at the department each have been reduced by 20 percent since the 2005-06 fiscal year.
Ironically, as director of the Community-Oriented Policing Services Office, Davis will be responsible for issuing some of the federal grants that supported police activities in his own department.
His goal at the department, he said, will be to expand the type of community-oriented policing that he says has worked in East Palo Alto and in other places and share it with other agencies.
"We've done some innovative things and I don't think we're alone," he said. "The key is to find those agencies and progressive leaders, to find the people that are dealing with the challenges and find out how they're doing it so that the field can learn."
Hyland said he hopes the chief's new position will put East Palo Alto on the map.
"I really hope his advocacy doesn't just go into pdfs that you can download off of a website," he said.
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