The president of the San Jose Downtown Association, the group that represents downtown San Jose business and property owners, has called for the establishment of a police advisory commission. Though his position has not been officially endorsed by SJDA’s board, Art Bernstein says it is consistent with the objectives of the group’s advocacy arm.
San Jose needs “a body in between the police and city council so that every time there are issues of concern to the community, it doesn’t take a city council meeting,” Bernstein told Fly. A “citizen’s advisory group” would fill that role best. In an OpEd in Sunday’s Merc, Bernstein cites recent initiatives to charge downtown businesses for policing costs and notes that police have become “more aggressive with permit compliance, code enforcement and the closing down of some of downtown’s bars and clubs.”
He also points out that the city has “sanctioned a late-night practice of using large numbers of police downtown on weekends.” He called on the city to shift “from enforcement to management when it comes to policing downtown.”
The original version, which Bernstein shared with Fly, ran under the unambiguous and provocative headline: “San Jose needs a police advisory commission.” (The piece can be read in its entirety below.) The Merc softened it for publication, but it is still likely to be explosive. The move is likely to face opposition from the SJPD, which has historically opposed citizen oversight.
San Jose formed the Office of the Independent Police Auditor in September 1993 as an alternative in response to calls for a commission to review police issues. The council appointed Teresa Guerrero-Daley to fill the slot, until Barbara Attard took over in 2004. After Attard sought power to review police investigations, the council restricted her powers and ended her contract last month.
Bernstein’s call for a commission renews the citizen oversight discussion.
The San Jose City Council generally hews to a pro-law enforcement line these days. The council’s pro-labor union majority supports issues dear to police union members who do not want citizens reviewing their activities. And three members of the non-union aligned council bloc include former SJPD officer Pete Constant, ex-prosecutor Sam Liccardo and a former military man, Mayor Chuck Reed. Councilmember Madison Nguyen, who rose to prominence as part of a citizen’s movement that followed a fatal police shooting of a mentally ill woman, is ill equipped to lead the charge. She’s currently fighting to save her political career due to a recall sparked by the Little Saigon naming controversy.
Bernstein’s article, with his original headline, follows.
San Jose needs a police advisory commission
by Art Bernstein
Though many downtown San Jose nightlife gems shine bright, the center city’s overall image still needs work, and seems to take lumps in the media almost weekly.
The latest headlines are about the San Jose Police Department’s high rate of drunk-in-public arrests. The City Council holds a public meeting on the issue Tuesday night.
Beyond the inevitable statistical rationalizations, city leaders should consider this a golden opportunity to change the city’s emphasis from enforcement to management when it comes to policing downtown.
No effective or formal layer exists between the police and the city council. How different would it be Tuesday if council members received an official update about progress on improving the night culture downtown instead of a public hearing to analyze drunk arrests? Would reactions be different if a standing citizen committee had been meeting all along; bridging police and community issues that put arrest statistics into reasoned perspective?
The city manager has recognized the need for increased community input on downtown police and nightlife issues and has plans to create an “advisory group” for this purpose. The actual powers and police cooperation with this group will be key, but for now, the manager’s plan is a step in the right direction.
An empowered commission could work with police, businesses, residents and community members on identifying tactics to better manage downtown nightlife, eventually developing consensus on policies for city council review.
Everyone shares the same goal of a safe, friendly and successful downtown with diverse entertainment and activity options. However, current city tactics address the goal from a negative perspective – that downtown nightlife is a problem that requires a heavy hand. To wit:
- Recent city efforts are more aggressive with permit compliance, code enforcement and the closing down of some of downtown’s bars and clubs.
- The city has sanctioned a late-night practice of using large numbers of police downtown on weekends, with most paid overtime, to help close the “entertainment zone.”
- More regulation waits in the wings, including a downtown nightclub tax to pay for police, noise monitors and new downtown zoning restrictions.
By over-concentrating on a handful of poorly managed clubs and rowdy young adults, we have let a few bad apples taint the whole downtown barrel. The headlines play out the city’s approach – in fact driving away some of the very customers (and condo buyers) we are trying to attract.
Too often ignored is the predominantly good news about downtown’s nightlife environment and its many wonderful venues: the neighborhood feel of Trial’s Pub, midnight movies at Camera 12, the sophistication of the Hedley Club Lounge, dancing at Splash, the eclecticism at South First Billiards, after-theater dinner at Original Joe’s, live bands at The Blank Club . . . the list of attributes is much longer than our shortcomings. It is time for the city to change its focus to the positives.
In familial terms, downtown is still an adolescent. From every branding perspective – the rational and emotional to the practical and magical – downtown’s nightlife requires nurturing. Certainly, unruly teenagers need discipline, but when has a singular approach of “laying down the law” been the most effective way to foster positive change in behavior?
Before the city increases its reliance on further regulation and enforcement, it should try a different management approach. It should allow the proposed advisory group to form and review existing practices. After collecting more facts, monitoring the regulations already on the books and giving the market a chance to evolve, we may find our collective goal of a diverse, safe and fun downtown night experience is closer than we think.
Art Bernstein is the volunteer President of the San Jose Downtown Association and Executive Director of Hopkins & Carley, A Law Corporation.