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How a California city went from 'murder capital' to zero homicides

For the first time in 40 years, East Palo Alto did not report a single homicide in 2023, despite once being hailed "America's murder capital."
Buildings on a sunny day in East Palo Alto, California.
Posted at 12:26 PM, Jan 10, 2024

Once hailed "America's murder capital," the California city of East Palo Alto has come a long way since the early 1990s.

For years, the city reported sobering statistics, including the highest per capita murder rate in the nation in 1992.

But the city is singing a different tune these days.

For the first time in 40 years, East Palo Alto did not report a single homicide in 2023, according to local news reports.

The city and its police department are attributing the zero-murder year to an increase in trust between residents and the police department, which implemented new community policing policies.

In the 1990s, people of East Palo Alto did not trust their local police, as rogue officers beat and harassed residents at times, according to local publication Palo Alto Online.

Today, Police Chief Jeff Liu is proud of his department, which holds monthly meetings discussing crime, charity events, and has officers connected with residents — with whom many are on a first-name basis, says Palo Alto Online. 

"I think we have a great deal of community trust," Liu told the publication. "I'm really proud of the relationships that we have with our community members at all levels."

The murder-free year was an "emotional" milestone for East Palo Alto Mayor Antonio Lopez, who was born and raised in the city.

"You know, I've seen friends get caught up in gangs — folks who, if they would have lived in another ZIP code, might have had another opportunity, another chance to better themselves," Lopez told local newspaper Mercury News

"For me, being in leadership, I understand that we set the stage for our young children, our families to feel safe," he said. "For me, as mayor, to usher in the new year with zero homicides — never in my wildest dreams did I think East Palo Alto would achieve this" in this time frame. 

Liu noted that a key factor to the city's success was also an increase in police funding, which enabled the department to provide a 15% raise over a two-year span, along with a $30,000 hiring bonus, according to Mercury News.

He also said the department shifted focus from arresting people to addressing the root causes of crime.

"Because the goal is to have a safe community, not necessarily arrest people," Liu told Mercury News.

"In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to arrest anybody, because we can give people other options — healthy options and productive options — rather than catching them when they choose [the wrong] path. It's a bad option," he said.