When volleys of gunfire erupted Tuesday at Jack Farrell Park in East Palo Alto, the shootout shattered a balmy evening of games and sports for an estimated 60 people who had been enjoying a normal weekday.
"There were so many children screaming and crying and running," a mother named JP recounted on Thursday. Her own son had just come to her and then had run to the playground to play.
"All of a sudden all of this transpired and I'm ducking and dodging. At the same time. I can't duck because I'm trying to find my son," she said. "I didn't know where my child was. I was so scared.
"Eventually I found him hiding behind the tree. Thankfully, some lady took him in and a whole bunch of others to hide," she said.
At a specially convened City Council meeting on Thursday, community members decried the violence caused by two pairs of shooters who fired 33 bullets at each other in the crowded park. Both residents and city staff said it is time to add surveillance cameras to the Fordham Street community space.
The brazen gun battle was shocking even to those who have weathered past times of violence in the city.
"They broke the street code," Pastor Paul Bains, police department chaplain, said at the meeting. Even among gangs, there's always been an understanding that shootings aren't done where women and children are gathered, he said.
The 6 p.m. shootout killed one man, Ralph Fields Jr., and injured three others. Video taken by a child on her cell phone, which has since gone viral online, captured her trauma as she ran and dozens of gunshots cracked nearby.
The shooting comes after years of efforts to revitalize the city's parks with new fitness and playground equipment, police interactive "Fit Zone" programs and volunteer clean-up activities. The homicide was the city's first this year.
Interim Police Chief Jeff Liu, Mayor Ruben Abrica and faith leaders quickly convened a press conference on Wednesday to address the shooting, which they said has traumatized many residents in the community. Liu said his department has already increased patrols with the help of the Menlo Park Police Department. Faith leaders met with residents for a vigil at the park to help process the trauma and pain.
At Thursday's council meeting, city leaders offered an update on the investigation, shared trauma resources and heard from residents.
Vice Mayor Lisa Gauthier said the crime could have been far worse. The T-ball teams that usually play at Jack Farrell at that time of day were fortunately at Martin Luther King Park on Tuesday taking pictures.
"Our families, our community, our children have the right to play in our parks. So if that means we have to go and make sure that there's no loitering at Jack Farrell Park, and whatever we have to do to make sure that that park is a safe space, let's make sure we do that," she said.
"And I'm willing to hear and listen if it means cameras need to go in that space so that we can see what's going on.
"I don't want to see another day when we're talking about or thinking about what happened at Jack Farrell Park where our families are now afraid to go," she continued. "That's not the community that I want to be a part of. And I know none of us here want to be a part of a community where we're living in fear."
Interim City Manager Patrick Heisinger said the city is in the middle of developing its parks master plan, which could include security measures at the parks.
"An idea about security at parks and cameras has always been, I would say, pleasantly debated at these meetings. But just from the administration's perspective, I do -- we do -- think it's time we need to really look into that," he said. "We do think we can come up with some type of camera system that works for those that are worried about surveillance but also those that want to use the parks and want to deter certain behaviors."
JP, the mother who couldn't find her son, told the council that about 50 kids were at the park.
"You guys have to do something to make this better and safe for our babies. This is unacceptable," she said.
Residents Brian Bradshaw and Jeffrey Austin said they support installing cameras at the park.
Bradshaw read a letter he'd written to the police department more than four years ago regarding loitering at the park.
"Now when I drive by every day on my way to and from work, I see an increasing number of cars parked in the middle of the parking lot. With many adults either hanging out in the cars or standing next to the cars or on the sidewalk. They clearly aren't using park facilities. They're just hanging out in their cars doing who knows what," he wrote.
"I have no idea if there are any illegal activities going on – drugs, etc. – but their behavior just doesn't fit with what you'd expect to see at the community park," Bradshaw continued, noting that he doesn't let his kids go to the park.
"If you could increase the police presence at the park, that'd be great. And it might encourage these adults to go elsewhere to do their business and leave the park to the kids and the families," his letter stated.
"I wrote that in October 2017. It's the loitering that triggered this, that caused this, that was the foundation for all of this. We have to stop the loitering; I fully support cameras in the parking lot," he said.
Austin also said he favors installing the cameras.
"When I saw the video the first time, of course my heart was yanked out. I was shocked at the blatant disregard for life, the families of East Palo Alto. Then I became angry," Austin said. "Retaliation truly was on my mind for these individuals. But now my mindset is determined – make sure that this never happens again in our park. We've had enough of this.
"I really appreciate the solidarity that we're seeing. Let's continue it. Let's find these people. Let's secure the park. Let's do it, like, yesterday," he said.
Abrica and Councilman Antonio Lopez assured residents the council is committed to finding solutions. Abrica said the city is committed to preventing similar crises and asked residents to also refrain from retribution.
"We can overcome this tragedy and prevent further incidents. … I can promise you that as mayor on behalf of the council, we will do our part to do whatever else we need to do.
"And likewise, we do ask everyone to do their part. We all play a part, whether it's within our families, in our neighborhood, and institutions that we belong to – every individual. I believe all of us have a responsibility to look after each other and definitely to not engage in violence," Abrica said.
Lopez thanked residents for their candor.
"The passion and the emotion is clear. I just want to recognize how sensitive and difficult this conversation is and how it really brings up a spectrum of perspectives about what does public safety mean in East Palo Alto, given our unique history, given our young history, given the grassroots, bottom-up style that we have. I just ask the public to come to the table in good faith. Be sincere with your opinions.
"In turn, we as council members with our various perspectives are going to come up with the right solutions for our community. … I'm hopeful and optimistic that we're going to turn this (into) an opportunity to give the community the resources they deserve. So I just want to thank everybody on this call once again, for the work that they do. It's not enough; it never is. But this is a clarion call," Lopez said.
To help residents process the trauma of the shooting, the Children's Health Council, (650-521-6877) offers services to children and families. San Mateo County Behavioral Health (800-686-0101) offers services to all residents. Anyone who is experiencing a crisis can also call the mental health hotline at 211.