READ: Reducing Crime and Obesity, in the Park

In a FIT zone at Bell Street Park in East Palo Alto, Calif., friends from the neighborhood now gather regularly to play volleyball.

"The overall idea," says Melvin Gaines, who manages special projects for the city and has been with the project since it started, is for "residents to overwhelm the negative activities with positive things, so bad guys don't feel comfortable."

By Jeremy Raff - NPR

Sia Kailahi is a tough-looking amateur boxer with dark eyeliner and tattoo-covered arms, but today her boxing gloves are off. She tosses up a volleyball and smacks a serve over a net.

A dozen people, laughing, keep the ball airborne at Bell Street Park in East Palo Alto, Calif. The park sits right next to a freeway exit in a city that has significant crime, despite being surrounded by affluent communities and technology companies. This park has a history as an easy stop-off point for buying and selling drugs.

But the visibility of the park may also be a reason the volleyball games here have helped reduce shootings in the area, according to a report from the University of California, Berkeley's Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy. These are not just pickup games, but part of East Palo Alto's FIT zones. The acronym is short for Fitness Improvement Training, but the program is equal parts community building and public health.

"I think people in the community can really appreciate us being out here making our city look like a livable place," says Kailahi, from the sidelines.

In 2012, the East Palo Alto police department started FIT zones in the places with the highest concentration of gunshots. Researchers had used data from ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection system, to select the sites.

"The overall idea," says Melvin Gaines, who manages special projects for the city and has been with the project since it started, is for "residents to overwhelm the negative activities with positive things, so bad guys don't feel comfortable."

With police officers providing security, community members began riding bikes here, playing soccer and volleyball, and taking free nutrition classes from the staff of a nearby health clinic. Participation grew over time, and today dozens of people show up three times a week at different East Palo Alto parks.

Where Shootings Are Down

"We found that there was a statistically significant decline in shootings after the introduction of FIT zones," says Sarah Lawrence, director of policy analysis and program evaluation at the Warren Institute. "There is a huge potential for this type of initiative."

When Lawrence and her colleagues compared FIT zone sites with neighborhoods with similar demographics over 17 months, they found that shootings were at least 27 percent lower in the FIT zones.

But the shooting reduction was not uniform within the FIT zones. Shootings decreased significantly around one site — Jack Farrell Park — but not at Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

The study does not explain why the intervention worked in only one of the parks, but Lawrence thinks their locations within their respective neighborhoods may offer a clue. Jack Farrell is central to the neighborhood, and open, so anyone walking by can see cops and kids playing together.

King park, by contrast, is so hidden that the city has put up a half-dozen signs with arrows leading visitors through the neighborhood to the park. The entrance is at the end of a cul-de-sac, and most of the park faces San Francisco Bay. That makes it harder for residents to notice that more residents and police are now using the park. READ MORE

Photograph: Jeremy Raff/KQED