There has been a lot of reporting lately in Atherton about prowlers, vehicle burglaries, and neighborhood petty thefts. With the recent upgrades to the Town’s website, the Town is more pro-active in disseminating information to the entire community in an effort to prevent criminal activity. Through the Town website, residents can sign up for NotifyMe! and CitizenRIMs to receive notifications and alerts from the Town about criminal activity and crime prevention tips. Raising the awareness level is one way of assisting the Police Department with crime prevention. Many “safe” communities become very complacent about locking car doors, closing gates, locking front doors, leaving valuables in plain view in their vehicles, etc. As a result, once the word gets out – criminals start to essentially browse through neighborhoods for crimes of opportunity collecting iPads, laptops, purses, garage door openers, registration and personal data, money from center consoles, spare keys, etc. These are the easiest types of crime to prevent – all it takes is awareness, education, and action.
That said, residences in affluent communities, such as Atherton, generally tend to have a higher level of security technologies protecting homes and valuables. These are an incredible resource for the police department to be able to access in the event of criminal activity that reaches private property. Because the Town does not have commercial districts nor do we have security cameras at traffic intersections there are limited such technologies available for use as a resource to address activity in public spaces. When accessible, these private resources are put to investigative use to assist with solving criminal activity in Town. In doing so, it is important to recognize, even with these added technologies, the Hollywood Effect
surrounding crime scene investigation.
Hollywood has had a long love affair with policing from the first appearance of the Keystone Kops in 1912 to the 2000 hit crime drama, CSI. Hollywood’s focus on policing and the popularity of this genre with the movie-going public has had a tremendous influence on the public’s perception (or misperception) of the criminal justice system. For example, a 2004 U.S. News Report cover story highlighted, “The CSI Effect,” and how it creates unreasonable expectations on the part of jurors, making it more difficult for prosecutors to obtain convictions.
The same holds true for the public’s unreasonable expectations of the police and their daily activities. You almost never see a police officer on television writing a crime report, waiting in a hospital emergency room with a victim to obtain a statement or a suspect to ensure transport, booking a prisoner into jail or trying to repatriate a lost child with his/her parents. Contrary to popular belief, police officers in most jurisdictions will never draw their firearm in the line of duty, will never engage in a “shoot-out” with a suspect or suspects, nor will they engage in high-speed vehicle pursuits. The police, as representatives of government, have significant limitations as to what they can and cannot do. Unlike the crime dramas on television, it takes longer than a 60-minute episode of CSI, followed by a 60-minute episode of Law and Order to investigate, identify, apprehend, try, convict, and incarcerate a suspect in a major crime (not to mention that during that two-hours – everyone is focused on that singular event – not the multitude of others on their desk back at the office).
However, when it comes to investigating major crimes, a smaller police agency like the Atherton Police Department can be every bit as effective as a large one. But a smaller agency faces unique challenges in efficiency in handling a complex major crime. Smaller agencies simply do not have the available resources or the specialized equipment that larger police agencies have. For example, Atherton does not have a dedicated Crime Scene Unit (CSI) that can respond to a major crime scene to handle evidence collection. In fact, after the Town’s recent hit and run fatal collision on Middlefield Road, the San Mateo County Crime Lab assisted the Department by collecting evidence from the scene. Because Atherton does not have its own “crime lab” (which would be rare in any case) we must rely on the County Crime Lab for processing of evidence. On serious felonies, the typical turnaround time for processing evidence such as finger prints, bodily fluid tests and DNA results can take months, or even longer, depending on the Crime Lab’s workload. An incident in Atherton is no less important than incidents from other jurisdictions dependent upon the County Crime Lab for evidence processing.
Similarly, if a residential burglary case requires investigative follow-up, the Atherton Police Department does not have a pool of detectives waiting to assist back at the office. In most cases, the on-duty patrol sergeant and two patrol officers will investigate the burglary by themselves. These officers handle scene assessment and containment, evidence identification and collection, evidence storage and processing (chain of custody), interviews of victims and witnesses (both in and out of Town), victim counseling and transport, interrogations, report writing, suspect identification, warrant processing, arrest, and transport. Depending on the nature of the incident, these elements can be simple or extremely complex. Regardless of the nature of the incident, all of these elements are extremely important, catastrophic if done improperly, and critical to the end result of solving the incident. It is for this reason that all of the officers need to be fully and properly trained and certified in any respective specialty they may have obtained.
From an equipment resource perspective, for serious crimes and major traffic collisions, the Atherton Police have relied on outside agencies. During another one of our recent fatal collisions, the Menlo Park Police Department loaned us a high-tech mapping system called, Total Work Station, a tool that allows traffic investigators to reconstruct the collision scene in 3-D. For the same investigation the Menlo Park Fire District loaned the Atherton Police Department a diesel powered spot light tower so investigators could work through the night. Outside agencies have been very cooperative over the years in allowing the Town to utilize specialty equipment in the conduct of investigations.
The Atherton Police Department consists of well-trained and disciplined officers. When looking at the investigatory process, it is important to do so through the prism of reality and recognize the impact of the Hollywood Effect that can distort perceptions and expectations of the process.
George Rodericks, City Manager
Ed Flint, Police Chief