Here’s some news Menlo Park is happy to “share.”
The small Silicon Valley city with the only Facebook-funded beat cop in the United States has won a prestigious California award. Menlo Park, home of Facebook headquarters, will formally accept one of the state’s 2015 Helen Putnam Awards for Excellence.
The award recognizes police for strengthening the department’s relationship with community members and reducing crime rates in the city’s less affluent Belle Haven neighborhood.
The League of California Cities has been recognizing “outstanding cities that deliver the highest quality and level of service in the most effective manner possible” since 1982, according to the award’s official website.
“I feel so honored,” said Community Safety Officer Mary Ferguson-Dixon, attributing the success to the strength of the entire department. “I am truly blessed to have the opportunity to work toward a cause I am so passionate about.”
Ferguson-Dixon has spent the past couple years working with at-risk kids and their parents in the community.
In the award application, Police Chief Robert Jonsen noted that the department owes its success in part to Facebook, which pays Ferguson-Dixon’s salary, along with the yearly rental of a substation and community center on Hamilton Avenue for $800,200 over three years.
NBC Bay Area last year was the first to report on the officer’s unprecedented status. Ferguson-Dixon is believed to still be the only privately funded officer in the nation. The Police Foundation, the nation’s oldest police research foundation in Washington, D.C., is not aware of any similar arrangement. And to date, Facebook representatives said Ferguson-Dixon is the only salaried police officer in the country the social media company is funding.
Watchdogs who had previously wondered if paying for a position traditionally supported by tax dollars was good government are now suggesting more companies pony up in a similar fashion.
“It’s just another example of the phenomenon of private industry paying for what is a public good,” said Terry Francke, general counsel for CalAware and an expert on government. “Corporate practice should be encouraged. If private corporations are going to do this, you would hope they target their generosity to schools and cities who do not have that support and are struggling for resources.”
That said, Francke said the public should keep a watchful eye on such a relationship, making sure there is no quid pro quo.
Eva Spiegel, spokeswoman for the League of California Cities, pointed out how strapped cities are, and that relationship isn't all that unusual. "Public-private partnerships are frequently formed," she said. "As long as the city is transparent about the process...and the company does not have influence over it, the public is served."
Police Cmdr. Dave Bertini assured NBC Bay Area there is no favoritism toward Facebook. Of 40,666 calls for service from January to December of this year, just 101 calls — or .02 percent — were to Facebook headquarters at 1 Hacker Way. Bertini compared the unique act of a city taking private money for a police officer to the very common practice of cities requiring developers to create parks and pay for street improvements. If cities need to spend money on patrol rather than a playground, he asked, why shouldn’t they be able to?
“Facebook is such a huge resource and has so many employees, which causes an increase in traffic, “ Bertini said. “They are trying to give back.”
It was a strong need for better community relations and a lack of city money in the Belle Haven community that forged the public-private relationship between Menlo Park and Facebook. Gangs were rampant and crime rates high in a neighborhood surrounded by affluence.
Menlo Park couldn’t pay for a new officer or fund the substation renovation, so Facebook offered to step up. In May 2013, the company agreed to pay for two-thirds of the monthly rent, at a total of $97,200, and two-thirds of the operating costs, at $18,000, for the life of the three-year agreement. Facebook also agreed to renovate the space for $100,000. Ferguson-Dixon's compensation is under a three-year contract for $195,000 a year, at a total of $585,000 over the term of the agreement.
"We’re proud to be a member of this community, and wanted to do our part in contributing to the safety of its residents,” John Tenanes, Facebook's vice president of Global Real Estate and Facilities said in an email.
Since taking on her new role, Ferguson-Dixon has been meeting with middle school students every week and arranging guest lectures with community role models and law enforcement officers. In March, Ferguson-Dixon was recognized by the Peninsula Lions Club for her outstanding service working with schools and “at-risk” youth on truancy and conflict resolution issues. She’s also taught 55 life skill classes and 16 anger management classes, conducted 60 home visits to support truant kids, created a juvenile diversion program and counseled families in need, Bertini said.
Not only that, but police said overall crime declined 54 percent over 2013 in the Belle Haven neighborhood and 13 percent throughout the city.
There’s also the intangible human component.
“To be given this opportunity is incredible,” Ferguson-Dixon said. “Just being at the schools with the kids, playing, reading stories. I really reel that community relations in Belle Haven and all around the city has really improved.”
Ferguson-Dixon said the source of her paycheck is not a focus of hers.
“I don’t get involved with any of that politics,” she said. “I don’t even think about Facebook other than I drive by it every day. I’ve never even met Mark Zuckerberg, I’ve never even seen him.”