As pandemic-related restrictions eased, property crimes and violent crimes in Menlo Park dropped in 2021, bucking a nationwide trend of increased crime in major U.S. cities. The decrease comes despite staff cuts to the city's police department.
From 2020 to 2021, violent crimes -- which include homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- decreased by 8.5%, from 47 to 43 reported cases, according to an annual crime report released Monday by the Menlo Park Police Department.
Property crimes fell more substantially. During the same period, incidents involving burglary, a stolen vehicle, arson, larceny and theft from vehicles decreased by 28%, from 776 to 558 reported cases. Violent crimes and property crimes are categorized using the police department's own classification.
The decrease presents a contrasting picture from a year that saw an uptick in crimes throughout major cities, accompanied by media reports of violence and brazen organized thefts at stores.
According to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California, preliminary data from four major California police departments -- Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco -- show that property and violent crimes increased when comparing data from January to October of 2020 and 2021.
Property crimes rose around 7% in 2021 on those cities, while violent crimes increased by 5%, the study found. Definitions of violent and property crimes may vary across departments, but generally include similar incidents.
Menlo Park Police Chief David Norris wrote in an email that the crime drop in 2021 could be due to the lasting impacts of the shelter-in-place orders and a community that's still on high alert.
"We must also attribute some of the impact to our alert residents and businesses reporting suspicious activity and safeguarding their property," Norris said, pointing out that the department has worked to improve engagement with community members prior to the pandemic.
The decrease comes after a downsizing of the police department's staff by 20% when the city slashed $2.46 million from the agency in 2020. At the time, those cuts eliminated the city's traffic unit, proactive gang and narcotics investigations and daytime parking enforcement.
"The loss of 15 police personnel, which included 10 sworn officers and five professional staff positions, had significant impact to daily operations," Norris wrote.
It's difficult to pinpoint causes for the crime reduction in Menlo Park when looking at historic data. Since 2004, the earliest dataset available on the city's website, property and violent crimes ebbed and flowed.
The number of violent crimes has swung throughout the years. Between 2004 and 2021, the city reached its peak in 2007 with 78 reported cases.
While California recorded a 9% drop in property crimes from 2019 to 2020, reflecting a steady decline since 2000, Menlo Park has seen higher rates in recent years, with the peak of 776 cases in 2020.
Since 2004, Menlo Park surpassed 700 cases of property crimes in 2004, 2008 and 2019.
Overall, calls for service have recently declined. The police department received more than 20,000 requests for service last year, following over 21,000 calls in 2020. Both years' reports attributed the reduction to the pandemic.
"Prepandemic, there were certainly more calls for service as everything was business as usual," Nicole Acker, the department's public information officer, wrote in an email. "We were able to have many more opportunities to engage with residents, and we had more staff to do so also along with more community events. The calls for service and public contacts have reduced quite a bit over the years."
Calls for service do not represent the entirety of the department's activities. Not every call may result in written reports and citations, and the department also handles "hundreds" of walk-in requests and phone calls to service the public. Throughout 2021, the department conducted over 3,550 traffic stops, over 870 pedestrian and bicycle stops, wrote over 2,200 reports and arrested 560 individuals, the report said.
"Even with less staff, officers and police personnel maintained the high levels of response and professionalism to the community," Norris wrote. "Officers' continued visible presence in the community is a deterrent to criminal activity."
The department also reported that there were six cases investigated by internal affairs in 2021, though it did not disclose what the investigations were about.
Among the six complaints, two are currently under investigation, one was exonerated, one was "frivolous in nature," and two were not sustained. "Not sustained" means the investigation failed to find sufficient evidence to "clearly prove or disprove the allegation(s)," the report said.
This police department had also had six complaints in 2020, and 10 complaints in 2019.
"With all this in consideration, six complaints per year is an acceptable number, but we will always strive toward zero," the report said.