Wednesday evenings in Jack Farrell Park in East Palo Alto, California, is a curious sight -- police officers playing volleyball and soccer with community members, leading bicycle tours around the city’s streets, and conducting outdoor Zumba classes, while staff from a local community health center engage residents on topics like healthy cooking and female health. These are all part of an innovative initiative aimed at curbing crime and building healthy habits in two high-crime neighborhoods in East Palo Alto called the Fitness Improvement Training (“FIT”) Zone program.
Launched in 2012 by the East Palo Alto Police Department, the FIT Zone program takes aim at two enduring issues facing residents of this small California city—violent crime and poor health. In 2012, this city of just 28,000 had the 13th highest violent crime rate out of all cities across the state. Half of all children in East Palo Alto are overweight or obese, and residents suffer from chronic diseases, like diabetes, at four times the rate of other areas in the county. Researchers have begun to understand the complex relationship between health and crime, a fact not lost on residents of East Palo Alto who avoid walking through their streets and parks for fear of crime. Each week, a variety of health and exercise activities are held at two FIT Zone program sites to encourage residents to use their outdoor community spaces in safe and healthy ways, and build positive relationships between the community and law enforcement. By fostering safe public spaces where residents can be active, the FIT Zone program aims to discourage criminal activity, especially gun violence, in these areas.
For my Advanced Policy Analysis project in my second year in the GSPP master’s program, I partnered with the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law & Social Policy to evaluate the impact of the FIT Zone program on public safety. My research focused on whether the program reduced shootings in the two targeted neighborhoods, and whether shooting activity was displaced into areas just outside the intervention sites. To do this, I reviewed five years of spatial data from the ShotSpotter acoustic gunshot detection system, a monitoring tool installed across the city that provides law enforcement with the exact geographic location, time, and date of shooting incidents. I compared the change in shootings before and after the FIT Zone program began in the intervention sites and areas immediately surrounding the intervention sites with a comparison site to estimate whether the FIT Zone program reduced gun violence.
My research found that the FIT Zone program reduced shootings significantly at one intervention site, but not the other, where the program appeared to have no impact on shooting incidents. One intervention site appeared to reduce shootings in the surrounding areas, a potential diffusion effect, while the other saw no change in gun violence in nearby streets. Why did the program appear to work in one location and not the other? Crime reduction efforts are rarely “one size fits all” solutions, and my evaluation of the FIT Zone program found no different. How the program was implemented at each site mattered, and the study raised important questions about whether the FIT Zone program was appropriately tailored to the underlying physical and social dynamics that generate gun violence in each neighborhood. Ultimately, the research led to a reorganization of the program, and the launch of a new intervention site.
The East Palo Alto Police Department’s FIT Zone program represents a promising new frontier in cross-disciplinary collaboration and community-police partnerships. My work with the Warren Institute and the East Palo Alto Police Department represents an early effort to evaluate and strengthen innovative policing programs.
Rebecca Tublitz’s Advanced Policy Analysis (APA) project on the FIT zone was awarded the 2014 Smolensky Prize for outstanding APA.