Crime Prevention Tips


This page has a collection of links to crime prevention tips that are designed to keep you, your family, and your property safe. They include recommendations from the Palo Alto Police Department about how best to handle various situations in which you may find yourself, and how taking certain precautions can keep you even safer. Remember, even though Palo Alto is an exceptionally safe city, crime still happens here. Educate yourself now so you can prevent becoming a victim later.

Click on the links below to explore crime prevention tips on each topic, and then scroll down the page to learn more about how best to report suspicious activity, what to do if you do become a crime victim, and what you can do to help your community stay safe.

Reporting Suspicious Activity

The best way to report suspicious activity to us is to promptly call our 24-hour dispatch center at (650) 329-2413, or 9-1-1 if it's an emergency.

While our officers routinely patrol our neighborhoods, parks, and business districts, they can't possibly be everywhere at once.  That's where our valuable community members come in.  Everyone in Palo Alto can serve as extra sets of eyes and ears for the police.  The commonly-recited mantra of "If You See Something, Say Something" could not be more true.

We urge our community members to trust their instincts, and if they see or hear something that does not quite seem right, to speak up and call us.  Just because someone calls the police does not mean that officers respond and make an arrest; rather, a call to the police is simply a request to investigate suspicious behavior to determine if that behavior is innocent or criminal.  If we do not know about it, we cannot investigate it.  We would rather get a call about something that wound up being innocent, than we would about not getting a call about a crime in progress where the suspect is then able to escape.

We often hear from people that they did not want to call "and bother us with something trivial."  While we certainly appreciate their intent, often times what they may believe to be "trivial" is anything but, and actually may be the clue we need to stop a crime from happening, or allow us to arrest an offender so that no one else becomes a victim.

We also often learn after the fact that a witness had observed a suspect acting suspiciously before the crime occurred, but chose not to call the police at the time because they rationalized that suspicious behavior in their mind.  Again, we urge the members of our community to trust their instincts; if something does not seem right, or if it seems out of the ordinary, it probably is.  Just call us and give us the chance to look into it.  We'll be happy to report the outcome back to you.

Examples of Suspicious Behavior that Merit a Prompt Call to Police

  • You observe what appears to be a solicitor knocking on your neighbor's door.  When they don't receive an answer at the door, they walk to your neighbor's unlocked side yard gate and go into the backyard.  That is a possible residential burglary in progress

  • You hear what sounds like several gunshots coming from the local park at night, but you think it was probably just fireworks so you don't call.  If it was gunshots and someone was struck by gunfire, they may be in immediate need of medical help and the suspects may be getting away.  And if it was "only" fireworks, well, those are illegal too so we would like to know about those promptly as well

  • You are walking your dog late one night and see a shadowy figure down the street trying to open door handles of every parked car.  That isn't someone who forgot which car was theirs; that is a theft suspect looking for a victim vehicle

  • You are at a local park with your family, and see a young child, barefoot, who appears to be about two years old sitting near the playground and crying.  There are no other children or adults nearby.  We would like to help figure out what is going on and make sure we can get the child back home with their loved ones

  • You are at home watching Netflix late one night when you hear a female voice screaming in your neighborhood.  You mute the TV and can only understand her crying "Help me!"  You then hear other people laughing and a vehicle driving away at a high rate of speed.  The screaming stops.  That is suspicious behavior and something that we need to promptly investigate.  You may not have seen anything, but what you heard was certainly out of the ordinary and merits some investigation

How to Be a Good Witness

If you witness a crime or suspicious activity, promptly report it to our 24-hour dispatch center at (650) 329-2413, or 9-1-1 if it's an emergency.

Being a good witness is not easy.  When we witness crime or suspicious activity, it is often a stressful situation.  That can make it challenging to focus on the types of details that an officer is going to hope you can remember during an interview.  Here's a checklist of several things that will help you be the best witness you can, starting with when you initially call the police for help.

The Basics

  • Give the dispatcher your exact location
  • Stay on the phone and allow the dispatcher to question you about what happened.  You may be ready to give all sorts of information to them quickly, but they need to ask certain questions first to get the most important information to our first responders as quickly as possible.  Our dispatchers do an outstanding job of speaking in a calming way to people in crisis, and obtaining that important information in an orderly and structured way
  • Do not hang up until directed to do so by the dispatcher.  They may be keeping you on the line to relay additional questions that may come in from our first responders
  • What is the suspicious activity?  Where did it occur?  When did it occur?


How to Describe a Suspect

  • Gender
  • Approximate age
  • Race
  • Height and weight
  • Skin tone / complexion
  • Clothing description (hat, jacket, shirt, pants, shoes)
  • Hair color and style, including facial hair
  • Eye color and if they are wearing eyeglasses or sunglasses
  • Tattoos, scars, birthmarks
  • Weapons (gun, knife, stick, hammer, etc.)
  • Direction of travel of the suspect if they fled
  • Any other distinguishing features (do they walk with a limp, are they carrying something, etc.)
  • Suspect's identity (name, home address, phone number, etc.), if known


How to Describe a Vehicle

Remembering the acronym "CYMBALS" may help:

  • C = Color of vehicle
  • Y = Year
  • M = Make (e.g. Ford, BMW, Honda, etc.)
  • B = Body style (e.g. sedan, pick-up, etc.)
  • A = Additional descriptive features (e.g. missing rear bumper, damage to driver's side, etc.)
  • L = License plate number
  • S = State of license plate

Also, it helps to know:

  • How many occupants
  • Last known direction of travel


The more descriptive you can be when describing a suspect and/or their vehicle, the better opportunity we'll have to identify and locate them.  Thank you in advance for your help.

If You Become a Crime Victim

Do your best to remain calm during the crime and try your best to keep your wits about you.  If the criminal is only after your property (your cell phone, wallet, purse, even your car), comply with their demands and hand it over.  Fighting back in this situation may escalate it and turn into a violent confrontation where you end up physically injured or worse.  Remember that property can be replaced, but life cannot.  If the criminal is attacking you physically, there is no standard recommended response because it is totally dependent on the situation.  Trust your instincts and do what they tell you to do.

Do your best to note details of the suspect:  their age, gender, race, complexion, body build, height, weight, clothing, tattoos or other marks on their body.  What words do they say?  Do they have an accent?  Do they have a weapon?  Do they have an odor about them?  And if the suspect is associated with a vehicle, do your best to note details of it, too: color, year, make, model, any unique features (a roof rack, damage to the back corner, etc.), a license plate number (or even a partial license plate).

Call 9-1-1 and report what happened.  We will respond right away to help you, and we will begin a thorough investigation to try to identify and apprehend the suspect as soon as possible.

Being the victim of a crime is an exceptionally traumatic experience that you will likely remember for the rest of your life.  Fortunately, there are a number of resources available for free to help you through the aftermath of the crime.  Our officer will provide those resources to you and ensure you understand them.  For more information about support available for crime victims and witnesses, visit the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office's Victim Witness Assistance Center website.

What Can You Do To Help?

There are many things you can do to help Palo Alto be as safe a community as possible.

  • First and foremost, please be extra sets of eyes and ears for the police by promptly reporting suspicious behavior to our 24-hour dispatch center at (650) 329-2413 or 9-1-1 if it's an emergency

  • Sign up to participate in the Police Department's free Basic Citizens Police Academy!  Visit the Citizens Police Academy page for more information and to complete an application

  • Get to know your neighbors and exchange contact information with them.  Agree to help keep an eye on the neighborhood together

  • Get involved with your local neighborhood association

  • Stay in the know by reading our daily Police Report Log to see all the incidents that our personnel are investigating.  The media uses this same log to produce their popular "police blotters" in local newspapers; however, they only choose to publish a small percentage of the total incidents.  You can see it all right here on our website

  • Stay up to date with major incidents in town by reading our News Releases

  • Become involved in the Emergency Services Volunteers (ESV) Program run by the City's Office of Emergency Services

  • Consider signing up to follow the Police Department on social media, receive e-mails for news releases and critical public safety information, and subscribe to the City's alerts to stay abreast of the latest emergency information.  For more information, and for links to all of these free services, visit our Social Media Connections page