The Future of Community Safety for Downtown San Jose

Some San Jose residents and business owners have expressed concern about an increase in crime during the pandemic, calling for a greater police presence to quell it. According to the San Jose Police Department, or SJPD, crimes like robbery and aggravated assault increased by about 10% from 2020 to 2021.

One of the main areas of concern is downtown – where restaurant owners like Adolfo Gomez – who runs the Mezcal restaurant say the prevalence of crime has been bad for business.

We don’t have clients who come because people are afraid to come downtown. These employees will not have hours, which means that they will lose their jobs. They will struggle and find another job. So many people forget it. . . So we really have to protect that. And at the same time, protect employees, protect customers and protect the business.

Together with other business owners and a nonprofit called Urban Vibrancy Institute, he tries to make visitors feel excited and safe to come downtown. Urban Vibrancy helps business owners organize live music in storefronts, organize street cleaning, and lobby for more foot patrols downtown. Adolfo says the police are the most immediate solution to keeping people safe.

There is no other alternative to do so. If you go, let’s give us an example. You go to Pier 1, and our Pier, you know, 17, 19, Pier 3 in San Francisco, you’ll always see foot patrols in there. More security. So the response is faster than people who come to hurt and they don’t see anyone and they leave you know, I can do that. . . We need to have people watching in addition to security. As a company, we don’t have the money now, tomorrow, or ever to pay for security in our spaces.

He and other business owners have been lobbying the city to add regular foot police patrols downtown soon.

A petition has been circulating for about a year, asking the SJPD to take care of public security. Mayor Liccardo expressed his support for a similar project initiative and rebuild the understaffed police service.

But not everyone thinks the police should be the primary response to public safety. Crime isn’t Downtown’s only concern – there’s also homelessness and residents with untreated mental illness. San Jose residents like Kiana Simmons say: We need a wider range of first responders — not just police — to deal with the many crises downtown.

We want to see alternatives to emergency response, especially for community members who are homeless. If it is not a very explicit illegal activity that harms members of the community in general, the call should be diverted. If it’s a mental health call—diverted, if it’s a youth—diverted, of course, depending on the circumstances, but overall we want those calls to be diverted to professionals who are equipped to handle these situations.

Kiana has pushed back on using the police to address community issues, especially after the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020. It was the very first protest she attended.

The protests of 2020 began with an explosion of feelings, anger, sadness. And being at city hall, it was a combination of singing, shouting, drumming, the whole fourth street down to fifth street on East Santa Clara, across from city hall, was occupied by people. And the people were on top of the balconies, they were on top of the rocks. They poured out into the street. And in the street, there was a line of police. They had tanks on the corner of Fourth Street and Santa Clara Street.

Demonstrations multiplied. the the city has imposed a curfew. Police used rubber bullets and tear gas to arrest protesters and bystanders. A man – out shopping – lost his eye after being hit by ammunition. Protesters accused police of using excessive violence and filed a class action lawsuit against the SJPD,

Kiana’s experience at the protest and its aftermath led her to start a non-profit organization called HERO tent. She helps homeless people and victims of police shootings and works for change through art.

One of the changes HERO Tent is working on is to make sure the city doesn’t rely on the police as the go-to solution to deal with crises. Kiana says she’s not the only one paying attention to the mayor’s plans to increase policing downtown.

There are many organizations paying attention and working on a response.

In 2021, San Jose introduced a police reform plan and created an advisory committee for Reinvent community safety. The idea was for the police to work with community leaders to determine how to intervene in conflicts and improve community-police relations.

HERO Tent, along with other community organizations, is part of this Consultative Committee. So far, they’ve recommended the city increase police oversight and accountability, create non-police first responder teams to address homelessness and substance abuse, and fund awareness campaigns to inform people about when it is necessary to call 911.

The mayor’s budget proposal runs completely counter to the Reinventing Community Safety Advisory Committee, or commission, that has been created. It’s really disappointing to see the recommendations that the mayor and the city council make, without even listening to this process that makes recommendations on what to do with the police.

Kiana and HERO Tent say many homeless people don’t always feel safer with more police downtown. For many homeless people, an increased police presence raises fears of harassment or questioning.

Daniel Corona has been homeless in the Bay Area for many years and has spent time living downtown.

Through an interpreter, Daniel says it has been stressful trying to stay safe without being housed.

Most of the issues that I was concerned about were at night when we were in the camps and people were entering the camps looking for someone, but in fact they were looking to rob people. Which always forced me to be alert, and it was really tiring and annoying to live like that.

Daniel works with a non-profit organization called Downtown Streets Team find stable housing and employment. He says he tends to keep to himself and tries to stay out of trouble, but he sometimes feels unwelcome by the police. It’s not him they’re there to protect, especially when launching programs to deal with the homelessness crisis.

Sometimes when they launch programs and send agents, they tend to look down on the homeless population and consider us garbage. So it’s [about] change some of their perceptions about the homeless population so they can help.

Public safety means different things to different people and it will be difficult to find a solution that satisfies all parties. The mayor continues to hear from business owners like Adolfo who want police readily available to deter crime. While residents like Kiana and Daniel want to ensure that all downtown residents are treated with care by the right responders. The mayor is expected to present a revised budget this summer.

David H. Henry