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Running down crime: Prevention strategies prove their worth in Los Altos

Photo Elliott Burr/Town Crier

Los Altos Police Officer Wes Beveridge speaks with resident Bob Gunderson, who called about a suspicious person in his neighborhood last week. Police attribute recent crime drops in part to active citizen involvement.

At approximately 1 p.m. Feb. 15, Los Altos Police Officer Wes Beveridge opened hot pursuit with an on-foot scofflaw fleeing northbound on Grant Road.

The self-proclaimed “well-aged” cop followed closely behind in his cruiser as the perp darted among cars, halting traffic.

Suddenly, the suspect disappeared in nearby shrubs.

“Where’d he go?” Beveridge asked, dumbfounded by the evasion.

After a brief calm, the culprit surfaced and coursed down a side street. Beveridge stepped on the gas and finally cornered the furry offender.

“Here doggy, doggy,” he calmly called out to the loose, otherwise harmless mutt.

Beveridge waited for the dog’s owner to retrieve it.

All right, so it’s pretty clear that there aren’t many riots, explosions or serial killers – the stuff of Hollywood and “CSI” – in Los Altos, and to the public it may seem like there isn’t much for cops to do.

But the 30 men and women in blue keep busy day in and day out to give the town that appearance. As Detective Sgt. Scott McCrossin noted, “We’ll never know how many crimes we prevent by just being in the area – flying the colors, so to speak.”

And officers, both in the detective bureau and on the streets, must be doing something right. Police chief Tuck Younis reported Feb. 8 that citywide crime is down 24 percent over last year.

Just the facts, man

Police recorded 280 crimes last year, down from 369 in 2009. A department official said that’s a 35 percent decline from 430 in 2008.

Burglary and larceny (theft by force) remain atop the list, though both experienced sharp declines. Larcenies totaled 166 in 2010, compared with 197 in 2009. Burglaries decreased 50 percent over three years to 67 last year.

While no rapes were reported in 2009, police took four reports in 2010. Younis said three of the rapes were either domestic disputes or brought through confidential interviews. None of the reports resulted in prosecution, and the remaining rape is under investigation.

Seven reports of arson were lodged (over last year’s zero), due in part to a string of related incidents between Covington and Springer schools. Younis said these and the reported rapes likely won’t become a trend.

The chief called attention to Detective Susan Anderson, whose receipt of an anonymous Crime Stoppers tip in October led to the arrest of an alleged child abuser, John Keith Wilson.

“She didn’t have much to go on, but through her tenacity, she was able to identify not only the victim, but also the suspect … on a case that quite frankly started out with nothing,” Younis told the Los Altos City Council.

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office filed 13 felony counts against Wilson, 40, who could face life in prison.

Multiple victims have come forward since the arrest, Younis said. DA spokeswoman Amy Cornell said Wilson’s plea hearing is scheduled March 30.

“The numbers are good – this is a good report,” said Mayor Ron Packard. “But when you start talking about some of the details, my heart just sinks to think that this can happen in a community. It’s just sad.”

Los Altos’ drop in crime – homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, auto theft and arson – is a reflection of community involvement, Younis noted.

“They understand they’re a partner in this,” he said in an interview, referring to Los Altos residents. “They call when they see suspicious activity. They take steps to be involved in crime fighting. … We have few crimes, but we’re not free of crimes.”

Beveridge, who’s been with the Los Altos department for more than two decades, said he’s not as “badge-heavy” as he used to be. He said if he issued citations for every infraction – no matter how minor – public partnerships wouldn’t come nearly as fluidly.

He recounted an instance a few years back when he was chasing a suspect (not the four-legged, tail-wagging kind this time), who ran into the driveway of an unrelated party about to leave in his car. The third party moved his car to pin the bolting suspect so that Beveridge could apprehend him.

“If I were heavy-handed on every little thing I saw, how long do you think before that guy (the vigilant resident) says, ‘Screw you,’ and lets (the suspect) kick the (expletive) out of me?”

Paco Vergara, crime prevention officer for Los Altos, cultivates crimelessness through block captains in various neighborhoods. He circulates e-mails after a crime occurs to generate awareness in the area.

Areas for improvement

Despite implementing proven methods of crime reduction, Younis readily admitted that the department is “far from perfect.” Certain categories lately have officers and detectives alike peeved.

While reports of home invasions have fallen by half since 2008, burglaries registered an uptick in January and continue to be a stacked column for the force (see chart above).

The police department issued a statement in January after a rash of home burglaries in areas between Foothill Expressway and Oak Avenue along the east and west sides of Grant Road. The department plans to sponsor a series of neighborhood meetings to stress precautionary strategies.

“The burglaries are really bothering me,” said Beveridge, who had been in the department’s detective bureau before transferring to patrol. “And they’re happening all over the place. … We know (the burglars) are around here, it’s someone who lives or works in the area.”

Detective Scott Bunch attributed the rise in part to a lagging economy.

Younis described the methodology behind a suspected thief’s journey from streets to slammer. A series of successful arrests have resulted from focusing on drug-related crimes, which in turn boosts burglary prevention.

“We know historically that burglaries are often committed so that people can get money to buy drugs,” Younis said.

He added that police analyze the way a crime occurs, the geographical area and time frame to hone in on trends.

“It’s all about connections,” Beveridge said.

Service with a smile

It may seem unusual for a police officer to refer to his or her livelihood as “customer service,” a phrase more frequently heard at department stores or car dealerships. Younis, however, said that providing good customer service is the cornerstone of his organization.

And the city of Los Altos places a premium on public safety, as that’s where it allocates slightly more than half of its annual budget. Of that, police take approximately 60 percent, said J. Logan, assistant city manager for Los Altos, and the rest comprises a contract with the Santa Clara County Fire Department.

Beveridge said Los Altos residents “pay for peace of mind” with their tax dollars.

“People that live here expect a higher standard of professionalism,” he said. “San Jose doesn’t respond to (all) traffic complaints.”

Asked what’s kept him going over the years, even amid the occasional child molestation case (“Those are really the worst,” he said), Beveridge said it’s been “interaction with people – that’s it right there.”

He added, “Eventually you’re going to meet the worst of the worst. But they’re few and far between.”

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