Much of the news in recent days has been dominated by the issues surrounding the San Jose Police Department. Last week, several colleagues and I sought greater transparency and disclosure of police reports, but by a 5-6 margin,we narrowly failed to persuade our colleagues to adopt the ordinance proposed by the “Sunshine” Task Force. On Sunday, the Mercury News released a video documenting the use of force by SJPD officers in the arrest of San Jose State University student Phoung Ho. Ash Kalra, Madison Nguyen, and I immediately called for a full investigation and—if any criminal charges of the officers are sought—a grand jury process open to public view.
Amid this rancor, one can understandably overlook many of the recent improvements to our downtown policing. We shouldn’t. While headlines compete for attention, for example, on the disproportionate arrests of Latinos on “drunk in public” charges, far less attention is paid to the resulting reforms, such as new arrest policies that have required verification by alcohol-detection devices and supervisor approval.
More subtle have been the gradual changes in downtown nighttime culture. As I took office in early 2007, the nighttime environment reached a nadir. Dominated by fly-by-night promoters and pack-the-house DJs, downtown San Jose’s night clubs drew big crowds with inadequate security to manage them. Tensions escalated between overworked officers and thousands of club-goers in varying states of sobriety, particularly around closing time.
In March of 2007 and again in February of 2008, I drafted a series of initiatives calling for reforms focused on increasing the accountability of the clubs while softening the interaction of police with club patrons. These measures emphasized such changes as:
• assessing clubs for police overtime costs;
• creating a licensing scheme to force entertainment promoters to submit to background checks and assume greater responsibility for security;
• reducing the number of police deployed in the downtown core;
• implementing a deployment model that gets the officers out of their cars and on to the sidewalks, in more interactive manner;
• creating a “soft closing” pilot to enable patrons to leave at a leisurely pace at closing time rather than being “pushed”out;
• improving training for bartenders and bouncers to reduce over-serving and address problem behaviors before the police become involved; and
• restricting the size of new clubs to improve crowd management.
Since that time, the Council passed almost all of these measures, with only the new club size restrictions pending Council deliberation. We’ve also employed other important initiatives– easing restrictions on “sidewalk cafes” to encourage more “eyes on the street,” and imposing fees for late-night parking to pay for safety, lighting and cleaning improvements in the garages. The result: in three of the city’s key downtown garages—Market St., Third St. and Second/San Carlos—monthly incidents reported by SJPD dropped by half between 2008 and 2009.
City Manager Deb Figone has tasked city staff member, Lee Wilcox, the downtown coordinator, to ably coordinate these various initiatives, and to facilitate communication between clubs and the police. Dozens of bartenders and bouncers have attended SJPD-conducted safety trainings, for example. Gradually, a new tone has emerged.
In July, City Manager Deb Figone and Police Chief Rob Davis initiated a new police deployment model. Under the direction of Lt. Larry McGrady and Capt. Phan Ngo, they enabled a more collaborative approach with the clubs, an approach harkening to the days when San José pioneered “community policing” a quarter century ago. Lt. McGrady encouraged officers to leave their patrol cars and walk the beat, engage proactively with club owners, soften the sidewalk-clearing at closing time, and undergo specialized training for policing clubs. Along with a more collaborative approach comes added responsibility, however; the SJPD recently pulled the entertainment permit of Club WET because of its failure to police itself.
Replacing a failing nighttime culture required that we affirmatively push for alternatives that would draw a crowd with a greater diversity of ages and interests. So, we’ve engaged with arts venues along South First Street to enhance and expand “First Friday” events that bring thousands downtown every month to enjoy the best of our cultural scene. The San Jose Downtown Association led a successful effort to revive struggling restaurants with a “Dine Downtown” week of prix fixe menus at dozens of eateries.
Through a community engagement process, a consensus emerged that live music would serve as a key tool for broadening the downtown’s appeal. Several private and non-profit entrepreneurs emerged with great concepts. Chris Esparza—with the help of the Redevelopment Agency, 1st Act, and co-producers Michael Brilliot and Sheila Bernus Dowd—launched “Left Coast Live,” a successful effort to fill over forty downtown venues—restaurants, hotels, outdoor stages, and even bank lobbies—with live music of all types and tastes. Andrew Bales and Symphony San Jose returned with a larger and wildly popular summer Pops festival, filling the expansive lawns of San Jose State University with thousands of residents.
The anchor events of the downtown music scene—the Jazz Fest, Music in the Park, Blues Week, and Mariachi Festival—drew strong crowds by featuring acts like Santana, Joan Baez, and Third Eye Blind. Finally, we’ve invested millions in Redevelopment Agency funding to restore long-dormant luster to the historic Civic Auditorium. Once a host to such legends as the Rolling Stones and The Who, the Civic has opened its doors once again to crowd pleasers like Crosby Stills Nash & Young and Steely Dan, and helping to restore business for struggling downtown restaurants.
To be sure, a dreadful economy has taken its toll on our pace of progress, and much work remains. Yet we shouldn’t overlook that progress: the Wall Street Journal, for instance, recently recognized San Jose as America’s 6th best city for attracting young people and top post-college talent, while the Responsible Hospitality Institute nominated San Jose for a national award for its efforts to remake its downtown night scene. As a slowly recovering economy brings new opportunities—for a downtown ballpark, for instance—we look to continue this momentum to bring positive changes to our nighttime culture.