In a story in the Palo Alto Weekly at the time, resident Elaine Crooks said she implored police officers "Please don't kill my son, let him go," after they beat her son in front of her.
"They said, 'These are new billy clubs, and you're the first we're using them on,'" Crooks recalled.
Things got so bad that the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury in December 1997 recommended the police department be disbanded.
Pastor Paul Bains, police chaplain for the East Palo Alto and Palo Alto police departments today, recalled that misfits from other law enforcement agencies who often couldn't be hired anywhere else landed in the city.
"People were very fearful because of the excessive use of power," he said.
After years of alleged abuses and harassment — together with street violence and killings and open drug dealing — the community decided to do something about it.
Now in the city of roughly 30,000, residents join with police officers on bike rides through the most troubled neighborhoods, and police Chief Al Pardini walks the precincts with officers to get to know residents.
On June 6, Pardini joined a memorial demonstration honoring Minneapolis resident George Floyd, who died at the hands of police officers.
What improved relations between East Palo Alto police and the city's residents is largely due to collaboration, community members say. After the city was labeled the country's per-capita murder capital in the 1990s, Bains and other faith leaders began working together with nonprofit groups, including One East Palo Alto, to change policing in the city.
Bains established a chaplaincy to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community. Faith leaders and nonprofits ran a campaign, Promoting Life Thwarting Crime and Preventing Violence, and partnered with the police department. They ran youth summits with more than 400 young people and families and law enforcement.
Then-Chief Ronald Davis, who joined the department in 2005, focused on a community policing model. He got rid of the rogue officers. Bains and Davis met with alleged gang members who were identified as the most violent and offered them help to find jobs and resources for their families — if the young people agreed to get out of the gang life. If they refused help and committed crimes, they would be arrested and jailed, police told them.
"That program was very successful. We got many people jobs and out of gangs," Davis said.
Davis, who after nine years left to become executive director of President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, is now a partner of a nonprofit organization focused on policing reform. He was appointed earlier this month as an adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom on policing and social justice reform. He recalled what brought about changes in East Palo Alto.
"The key was not the community policing ideas that I brought. We had a very engaged and active community that wanted change. The community was the one that was leading. This police department was smart enough to lead side by side and to follow" what the community wanted, he said during a phone interview on Monday.
Despite the progress, the department had turnover at the top after Davis left, with four interim chiefs before Pardini took charge in November 2014. He inherited an understaffed department with low morale.
He told staff he would find quality people. "Not a warm body to fill the seat," he recalled.
Candidates take polygraph and psychological tests. Each must have a successful interview with the chief. He restructured the department and revised the department's policies and practices manual to follow state policies and training. His officers take a 40-hour course on crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques.
Late last year, they began training on a simulator that teaches officers how their choices can affect the outcome of a situation.
The department hired more officers of color. About 49.4% are nonwhite — 7.8% are black — and 55% of all staff are people of color, according to department data.
Since 2015, the department has sponsored members of the community to become officers through the Community Service Aide Program, in which residents first take on parking enforcement and community aid duties and then attend the police academy for free.
Pardini also worked the streets, knocking on doors in neighborhoods with his commanders and other officers to introduce himself and to listen to residents' concerns. Over time, residents came to trust the department. The tip line, which had been silent for so long, began to light up.
"Over the last five years, there's been a 60% reduction in violent crime. The community realizes they own a big part of that. The department has 38 sworn officers (and 14 civilian staff members) including me now. With people in the community involved, that has grown tentacles of hundreds of people in the community all working with us," he said.
A look at the community's response on social media posts shows the impact of those efforts. As protests of police brutality erupted across the nation in May, Mark Dinan, sponsor of the Facebook page East Palo Alto Neighbors, asked the group how they feel about their own police department. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Still, there are some who say there's work to be done. JT Faraji, founder of Tha Hood Squad Art Collective and The Real Community Coalition, a grassroots social justice organization, said East Palo Alto is probably better than most cities as far as community policing goes. But he has heard from people who have had negative interactions with officers from other cities' departments.
East Palo Alto police "don't hold other police departments accountable. They call in other departments that are racist for backup. They allow the officers to come in here, and they are terrorizing residents," he said. "How can you stand by and watch? That's your residents you are supposed to be protecting and serving."
Sometimes, he said, there is too much policing. During a recent incident involving an aggressive dog, 11 officers, including four from Menlo Park, arrived on scene. Yet no one called animal control, he said.
Pardini disputed Faraji's characterization that East Palo Alto fails to hold other agencies' officers accountable.
"I expect the same from them that I do from my officers," he said.
When there is an issue, he calls the head of that officer's agency and asks for them to look into the conduct. On a couple of occasions he has put residents who have a complaint in touch with the chief of the outside agency, he said.
He acknowledged, though, that there will always be some challenges in police departments as new relationships develop and new people come on board who must be trained.
Momentum for reform
With a nationwide movement underway to reform or defund police departments, Pardini recently put together a document to explain the achievements and objectives of the department, which has a $12 million budget.
He said he's concerned that too much is being asked of police officers. Police in recent years are performing tasks they never had to do before, like respond to mental health calls. Municipalities need to make sure there is adequate funding and infrastructure for new agencies to handle the services that officers currently provide, he said.
"It's a tall order to splinter off. Who is going to come out at 3 a.m. to deal with a psychiatric emergency?" he said.
Davis said he agrees with some of the prescriptions of the 8 Can't Wait campaign, which has put forth eight policy prescriptions to reduce police violence. But as a 35-year veteran of law enforcement, he said there's also a need to break with the fundamental police culture.
"I disagree with the federal government that this is not systemic (racism)," he said.
Even the vast majority of police who are good officers are forced to engage in practices that are rooted in systemic injustice, he said.
During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, police departments were a tool of oppression to be used against people of color, he said. Those practices of increased militarization and displays of police force have trickled down through the decades.
Now is the time for deep change, he said.
"To miss this opportunity would be a travesty of justice," he said. "I just hope we take ahold of it and don't lose momentum."
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