Almanac

News - December 18, 2013

Menlo Park police try new strategy to counter gang violence

by Sandy Brundage

Fall has been riddled with bullets in Menlo Park, with four shootings in the past month alone.

Several, including the Dec. 8 shooting that wounded a 15-year-old girl inside her Madera Avenue home, appear gang-related.

The police are trying a new strategy to counter the violence — notifying landlords when a violent crime occurs on their properties. Police Chief Bob Jonsen told the City Council on Dec. 10 that when informed of the shootings near each of the properties, the landlords decided to begin evictions.

Owners aren't always aware of crime occurring on their property, he said, and the police department hasn't been calling to notify them. But police will now do so as standard operating procedure, out of "a moral obligation to inform," the chief said.

He told the Almanac that it's up to the landlords to decide what to do.

In regards to the shootings, the community benefits by having the tenants relocated, he said, although police have no control over where they'll move to.

"I am not advocating eviction for every family with gang problems, but in these two cases my concern for the overall community supports the property owners' decision," Chief Jonsen said.

Then it's a matter of finding the shooters, according to the chief. He added that the shootings have helped police build stronger relationships within the community. In each incident, suspects have been identified, thanks to information provided by residents, and he's confident arrests are ahead.

Whether the new strategy creates difficulties for landlords depends on the circumstances, according to real estate attorney Mark Hagarty, a partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge and co-author of a book on landlord-tenant litigation.

Tenants on month-to-month leases for no more than one year may be given days' notice of termination without cause. Longer-term leases, however, require some factual basis demonstrating criminal activity.

"The first question to ask is: Why aren't the police arresting them? If (the criminal activity) is that foreseeable, why aren't police doing anything about it?" Mr. Hagarty said. "Second, what amount of control does the landlord have over the situation?"

If the landlord either chooses not to or can't legally evict, the courts consider whether the crime was predictable and whether reasonable steps, such as repairing locks or hiring a security guard, could have been taken to prevent it, Mr. Hagarty said.

"You can't evict based on the suspicion of police," he said. "But the landlord may have an obligation to take reasonable steps to prevent third parties or tenants from being harmed."

How the new approach will play out remains to be seen. But the police are also preparing to expand their technological capabilities, with several new surveillance cameras ready for installation and automated license plate readers (LPRs) purchased. The LPRs will be deployed as soon as the council subcommittee finishes drafting a privacy policy to address concerns about data retention and sharing, Chief Jonsen said.

Last, but not least, the long-awaited Belle Haven police substation should open by the end of January, he told the council. The facility, located in a strip mall at 871 Hamilton Ave. off Willow Road, will be staffed with a community service officer and a code enforcement officer, keeping someone available at the facility Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A Spanish speaker will be on hand Wednesday through Saturday.

Services will include code enforcement, filing police reports, purchasing overnight parking permits, and signing off on equipment violations. A small conference room will be dedicated for community meetings, and the department is also going to work on establishing a neighborhood watch program.

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