By Sherman Hall
The Atherton Police Department has trouble catching a break these days. The Palo Alto Daily News regularly examines every nuance of the department's activities. A member of the City Council insinuates that its officers shouldn't carry high quality weapons. A San Jose Mercury columnist pokes fun at the incident log.
As a long-time area resident, and as an Atherton Police Reserve Officer, it has been difficult to stand back and watch the attacks. Lost among the titillating politically motivated stories is a basic fact: the Atherton Police Department is successful at preventing crime because of its highly trained professionals, its investment in officer safety training and equipment, and its close ties with the community it serves.
Community Oriented Policing is a popular model in today's law enforcement. The Atherton Police Department has long practiced these concepts. In a discrete, wealthy residential community, it is a natural way to do business. A principal tenant of community policing is establishing contacts with community members. It calls for exploiting those relationships to find out about crime before it happens.
True, a missing dog may not always be crime-related. But, the relationship developed from such an encounter may ultimately help solve a crime. And, if handled properly, it certainly makes a resident more likely to call when they see something suspicious in the future. The Atherton Police Department is delighted to help its citizens with some of the more mundane calls. It's important to them; it's important to us. Moreover, it provides an opportunity to contact community members under more positive circumstances than issuing a traffic citation.
Stolen plants, broken gates, mis-delivered sausages, and death threats may not seem important to some readers whose communities are hemorrhaging from drive-by shootings, gang-related crime, and drug trafficking. In Atherton, we are able to devote attention to incidents that might not be of high priority in larger cities because those officers are investigating more serious felonies. I trust most communities would rather be in a position where officers have time, for example, to help a resident get back into an accidentally-locked bedroom.
It takes a lot of money to live in Atherton. The houses are among the most expensive on the Peninsula. There are two ways to get the required wealth: legally or illegally. Atherton has a few of the latter type of residents. It might surprise some to know that among the celebrities and CEO's, there are several Atherton residents with felony records, including convictions for narcotics and sex-related crimes. Our police department keeps an eye on these properties and has been able to make some important arrests by doing so. Crime in Atherton has not gone away; effective community policing has allowed the department to be successful in preventing it.
Atherton has also had it share of sensational crime, including kidnapping, invasion robbery, and murder. Of course, like any other city, we also routinely have cases of domestic violence, burglary, and assault (we have many schools in the jurisdiction). In the past months alone, two people have been arrested for concealing handguns while in Atherton. The department's leadership and its officers are highly trained professionals who can comfortably move between calls about missing diamond rings, resuscitating residents by using the defibrillators in the cars, and circumstances that call for detaining armed and dangerous persons.
One of our council members recently suggested that the department's investments in officer safety equipment have been frivolous and unnecessary. We do have video recorders in the cars. This tool has been extremely effective in controlling citizen complaints, thus avoiding lawsuits against the town. It has also assisted in prosecutions, saving the town money in overtime pay for court testimony.
Atherton Officers are occasionally called upon to back-up other neighboring agencies that have higher crime rates. We often stop vehicles in less reputable neighborhoods for violations committed in our jurisdiction. It may seem unnecessary to the councilman to have high caliber weapons, but it is an unfortunate necessity in the area we serve.
The tame and unexciting Atherton Police Department's incident logs should be the goal of a successful department, not a cause of ridicule. I am glad that local papers, including the Almanac and the Palo Alto Daily News publish them, as the residents have a right to know what we do. The reports keep them interested in the community and make them aware of crimes in their neighborhoods. They also reflect an agency that is effective in preventing crime by doing what it takes to serve its community. The work is not always glamorous, but such efforts ultimately pay off by reducing crime. That s what policing is all about.