EAST PALO ALTO — They were toddlers when their town earned the dubious distinction of America’s murder capital a quarter-century ago. In this bayside community bypassed by Silicon Valley’s wealth, gunfire became the soundtrack to childhoods spent avoiding parks and hustling home before dark.
Now, as Detective Lydia Cardoza and Officers Jose Luaorozco and Robert Olvera patrol East Palo Alto’s streets, their Peninsula hometown that witnessed so much tragedy has undergone a transformation few had imagined possible. Violent crime has dropped precipitously — by over 60 percent in the past 25 years. Murder has almost vanished.
“Now you see people jogging, and kids playing in the parks,” said Luaorozco, a 26-year-old Marine veteran and two-year officer who once lived on Dumbarton Avenue. “They’re not worried if there’s going to be a drive-by shooting.”
East Palo Alto became the per-capita murder leader of the United States in 1992 when its 42 homicides, fueled by gang and drug warfare among its population of 24,000, pushed its killing rates past crime-plagued Compton and Washington, D.C.
In 2017, the city logged one homicide, a mid-December murder-suicide between domestic partners, not a street crime. Since 2014, the city has seen no more than a handful of killings each year. Aggravated assault totals are hovering in the 50s, plummeting 80 percent from four years ago.
There’s no denying that has been helped by East Palo Alto’s economic transformation — the city has benefited from regional tech growth and the arrival of big-box stores, furniture giant IKEA and the Four Seasons Hotel, which replaced the liquor stores that lined Whiskey Gulch off Highway 101.
But economics alone don’t explain the change.How East Palo Alto shed its murderous rep is really a story of how a community came to trust its police force, maybe for the first time ever, and in doing so finally fulfilled one of the main reasons for the city’s existence.