East Palo Alto Police Chief Jeff Liu spoke with a nun and a local resident outside the La Cazuela Taqueria on Clarke Avenue, a noisy corner at Bay Road that previously attracted drug dealers in the old days. Cars whizzed by and men with leaf blowers cleaned a nearby yard.
The nun wanted an officer to come to a nearby school to speak to a group of students. It's what another officer had done previously before leaving the department, she said. Liu was quick on his cellphone. An officer arrived within minutes to meet her.
East Palo Alto is the kind of town — and Jeff Liu is the kind of chief — where average citizens connect directly with the highest levels of leadership. Liu, 50, who for years was simply referred to as "Jeff" rather than Sergeant, Commander or Chief, is a leader whose humble and soft-spoken style has brought him close to the community, and it's paid off.
In 2022, his detectives solved all of the five homicides that occurred in the city while he was interim chief. Liu is proud of the achievement, but he also credits the community. Residents helped the department solve the murders, he said.
"It comes down to building trust. If people don't trust us, they're not going to give us information," he said.
Liu was appointed chief on April 15. Born in San Francisco and raised in Palo Alto, he was raised by restaurateur parents, who owned the House of China, located near downtown's Varsity Theater. Liu attended Escondido and Addison elementary schools, Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School and Palo Alto High School, graduating in 1991.
After high school, he attended Foothill College for a couple of years and then San Diego State University. He didn't know what he wanted to do, so he followed his oldest friend's major in business and marketing. It didn't suit him. He switched to biology, but that wasn't for him either, he said. Needing direction, he took a career-assessment exam.
"At the top of the list was a furniture mover! That was kind of depressing," he said.
Police officer was also on the list, he said. He became a crime prevention and public safety assistant for the campus police department, wandering the parking lots trying to catch people who were burglarizing and stealing cars. He caught a couple of auto burglars and someone stealing equipment off the garage.
"It gave me a really fulfilling experience. I felt like I was doing a job that actually mattered," he said.
But the road to the police force wasn't a straight line.
Liu's father wanted him to return home. So he joined the Salinas Police Department, which sent him to the police academy. Liu didn't make the cut, however. He wasn't mature enough to make good decisions.
"It was one of those moments. I learned how important it is to mentor officers," he said.
Liu didn't work in law enforcement for another three years, until he joined East Palo Alto's force in September 2000, starting in beat patrol.
"I decided when I came into East Palo Alto that I was going to give it everything I have. If it doesn't work out, that's OK. The only thing I knew about East Palo Alto was that my parents told me not to go there. It was too dangerous," he said.
In East Palo Alto, Liu found the mentoring he had missed through Detective Rahn Sibley.
"He got me down a path where I got to know people and how to be responsive and listen to them and be responsive to their needs. I got to know the people and not just people that are not getting in trouble. Those relationships became the driving force for why I am doing the job and focusing on the positive, and focusing on the impact there can be," he said.
Liu mentored youth in the Explorer program, and he learned how to budget and to be a leader through the program, he said. And he loved seeing the youth become successful.
In 2009, as a newly appointed sergeant, he became the lead investigator in the Officer Richard May murder, a shooting that resulted in the death penalty for the perpetrator. Liu credited San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, with whom he worked on the case, with his next level of personal and professional development.
"I learned so much from Steve. Not just about trials, but how to be a person. Steve showed up at a homicide and he's friendly to everybody and speaks to them at the same level, although he was chief deputy district attorney at the time and I was a new rookie officer. I tried to model that practice. As I go forward, throughout my career I try to be like Steve, especially the way that he teaches people," he said.
The respect goes both ways. Wagstaffe praised Liu on Wednesday.
"He is a great guy. We spent three years working the Rich May case and nine months at trial. It was the biggest trial case ever done in that city. He did a magnificent job in investigating. He played a key role in getting justice. We would not have had success if it wasn't for his work.
"He is a very smart man; a very insightful man. … He is going to be a great chief. He understands people, his empathy for people and his superb leadership will be a real benefit for the city of East Palo Alto," Wagstaffe said.
Liu, who finally was able to get his criminal justice degree in 2016, credits East Palo Alto residents.
"The theme of how I came up in East Palo Alto aligns with the culture of East Palo Alto. When things happen, we try to find a way to deal with it even if there are not enough resources," he said.
Managing with the resources he's got
Resources have been a major challenge to recruitment and retention, he said. Forty years after incorporation, East Palo Alto police still work out of portable buildings on Demeter Street, at the isolated end of Bay Road. The department has traditionally been the lowest paid in the county. Young officers came to learn their craft, then moved on to get better pay elsewhere.
The department was nearly in crisis last April due to the exodus. Liu and interim City Manager Patrick Heisinger laid out their concerns in stark detail during a City Council closed session.
"In three months, we won't be able to provide police services," they told the council.
When Chief Ron Davis was in charge, he was able to borrow sheriffs, but the situation had changed.
"We don't have that luxury when there's a law enforcement shortage in almost every department," Liu said. "I asked (the council), 'Just give me a fighting chance.'"
The council granted a 15% pay increase, bringing salaries close to the county median. Liu received funding for retention bonuses, which improved retention. The department has hired 14 officers since July 2022 and is now nearly fully staffed, Liu said.
Liu has added other incentives: a wellness program to help assess officers' wellbeing, counseling services and more recognition. He started recognition awards such as a "poker-chip recognition program" after attending a tournament in honor of Rich May. He hands out poker-chip awards with special emblems for DUI arrests, firearms arrests, a community shout-out award based on residents' praises, super-sleuth award for solving difficult crimes, team-arrest award and a heart chip for officers who do something out of the goodness of their heart.
Liu also wants his officers to be in the department for the right reasons. He won't hire anyone, regardless of their past accomplishments, if they are only looking for a police job but have no interest in the community, he said.
"If East Palo Alto is the place you want to be and make a true impact, we'll work with you," he said.
Liu got the council to approve temporary surveillance cameras for Martin Luther King Jr. and Jack Farrell parks after a May 2022 shooting killed one person and injured three others.
He wants to create a police foundation to support the department and have activities to help youth — and maybe to help fund the police building.
Liu wants to find ways to identify and help kids who feel that they don't belong and to supply programs where they feel included, he said.
"Those are the kids that are like me in school. I wasn't academically gifted. I wasn't one of the smart kids. Luckily, I was pretty good at sports. That's where I was hanging out, with the kids who were in sports," he said.
He's working with community members to have a football event with former East Palo Alto residents who are now in the national leagues to help youth have role models.
"Additionally, I want to take our community policing to another level. Right now as you know our community is changing. It's not the same community as when I first started," he said.
Liu said the department is trying to balance people's values as the city's demographics shift. Some people want parking enforcement; others are upset when officers issue many citations. Some people want security cameras; others view them as an invasion of privacy, he said.
"We need to make sure that we don't take sides. Everybody who lives here deserves to be heard. I want to make sure I listen to everybody and make the best decision I can, keeping everybody's interest in mind and also problem solving," he said.
As the fireworks season looms, Liu is seeking community input on reducing the illegal explosions.
Liu said resident Antoine Brooks, an Army colonel, has been running a community survey and is helping him set up biweekly community meetings and discussion sessions to get residents' input.
"I want our community to help me decide where we go as a department. I really want them to be part of the problem-solving process. We're gonna have challenges that present themselves. I really need us to rise up together. That's the beautiful thing about East Palo Alto. When something happens, we bond together. We rise up to the challenge," he said.