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Sheriff's Office touts new resources to combat crime in Los Altos Hills

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Town Crier Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Hugh Murphy patrols Los Altos Hills, a beat he assumed in January. His SUV, above, sports an automated license plate reader system.

Hugh Murphy’s vehicle chirps at him all day long. It took some time for the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office deputy to grow accustomed to the incessant chatter, but he appreciates it now; the noises mean the automated license plate reader within Murphy’s patrol vehicle is working.

The Sheriff’s Office purchased the $20,000 ALPR system through a grant approximately seven years ago, and the agency has used it as a shared resource among contract cities. Its longer-term, dedicated assignment to the Hills, which commenced earlier this year, and Murphy’s transfer from Star One helicopter patrol to the Hills beat in January are among the latest changes the Sheriff’s Office has implemented to deter crime – particularly residential burglaries – in town.

Murphy explained how the ALPR works: As he drives around, cameras on his SUV’s roof snap photos of license plates. The images are converted to digital signals that are compared to a stolen vehicle database contained within the vehicle. An iPad-sized screen attached to Murphy’s dashboard reveals the photos and the digital, alphanumeric rendering the system generates from them. The database is updated daily to add new stolen plates and vehicles and to remove recovered ones.

“Even though it’s grabbing all these plates, it’s not comparing them against your personal information; it’s only comparing them against that database,” Murphy said. “So it’s only really looking for stolen plates. It’s not figuring out that this car lives in Los Altos Hills and this one lives in San Jose. It doesn’t operate in that fashion. It’s not Big Brother technology.”

When a stolen license plate is detected, the system goes berserk: “Alert! Alert! Alert!” So far, Murphy hasn’t heard that startling sound connected with a plate in Los Altos Hills. But he’s remained busy on the beat nevertheless. During the first three months of the year, the town marked an uptick in residential burglaries, 13 versus eight for the same time period in 2018.

Murphy racks up approximately 100 miles a day driving his SUV around Los Altos Hills, and he believes his commitment to remaining “extremely visible” has helped to dissuade criminals; the town experienced only one burglary in April (none were committed in April 2018).

“If there are crews running around, either getting ready to do burglaries or doing some pre-scouting for burglaries, I’m hoping that they see me and decide some other town is an easier target,” he said.

Patrol update

Sheriff’s Office Capt. Rich Urena, the West Valley Patrol division commander, summarized his agency’s operations in town for city council members and staff at their April 26 goal-setting meeting. He highlighted the addition of Murphy and the ALPR as well as the payoff from expanding motorcycle Deputy John Prado’s hours from part time to full time starting in July.

That second change, which will cost the town an additional $99,000 this fiscal year for 465 more deputy work hours, was implemented after concern about some lapses in emergency call response times during 2017. But now two deputies are scouring the Hills during the daily weekday shift instead of one. Patrol deputies can concentrate on patrolling and Prado can focus on vehicle stops and citations.

“There’s been a precipitous drop in complaints called into the town about speeding,” said City Manager Carl Cahill. “I’m not saying it no longer exists. I just haven’t gotten a call in quite a while from a resident or an email saying speeding is out of control.”

Urena said this separation of law enforcement duties has helped speed up response times. According to the Sheriff’s Office’s contract with the town, the agreed-upon response time for Priority 1 calls (life-or-death emergency situations, typically involving lights and sirens) is 9 minutes, followed by 14 minutes for Priority 2 calls (crimes against a person not considered life threatening) and 25 minutes for Priority 3 calls (nonemergencies). Through April, the average response time for Priority 1 calls this year is 2.28 minutes, the average response time for Priority 2 calls is 9.83 minutes and the average response time for Priority 3 calls is 13.78 minutes.

“The question that always comes up is, do we have enough resources in town?” Urena said. “Do we have enough deputies in town that we’ll be able to address any of the crimes that are being reported? And the answer to that is, absolutely we do. We always do.”

The Sheriff’s Office is a scalable resource, meaning additional manpower beyond the locally stationed deputies is always available to the town if it’s needed to handle a major crime or incident, Cahill added.

“There was an elderly resident who had Alzheimer’s who was lost, and there was an army of deputies out looking for that person,” Cahill said. “They found him.”

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