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The future of community safety for downtown San Jose

Some San Jose residents and business owners have been worried about a rise in crime during the pandemic, calling for more police presence to suppress it. According to the San Jose Police Department, or SJPD, crimes like robbery and aggravated assault went up by about 10 percent from 2020 to 2021.

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

We don't have customers coming in because people are scared to come to downtown. Those employees   will have no hours, so means they will lose their jobs. They'll struggle and they get another job. So a lot of people forget that . . . So we really need to protect that. And at the same time, protect the employees, protect the customers and protect the business.

Together with other business owners and a non profit called Urban Vibrancy Institute, he’s been trying to make visitors feel excited and safe to come downtown. Urban Vibrancy has been helping business owners host live music at storefronts, organize street clean ups, and push for more foot patrol downtown. Adolfo says the police are the most immediate solution for keeping people safe.

There’s no other alternative to do that. If you go, let's give you an example. You go to Pier 1, and our pier, you know, 17, 19, pier 3 in San Francisco, you always gonna see foot patrol in there. Plus security. So the response is quicker than people who are coming to do harm and they don't see anybody and they go you know, I can do this . . . We need to have people watching besides security. We as a business don't have the money now, tomorrow or ever to pay for security in our spaces.

He and other business owners have been putting pressure on the city to add regular police foot patrol downtown soon.

A petition has been circulating for about a year, asking for the SJPD to address public safety. Mayor Liccardo has expressed support for a similar initiative and to rebuild the understaffed police department.

But not all people feel the police should be the primary answer to public safety. Crime isn’t the only concern downtown - 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 address the many crises downtown.

We do want to see alternatives to emergency responses, specifically for unhoused community members. If it's not very explicit, illegal activity that is harmful to general community members, then the call should be diverted. If it's a mental health call--diverted, if it's a youth--diverted, I mean, of course, depending on the circumstance, but overall, we want these calls diverted to professionals who are equipped to manage these situations. 

Kiana has been pushing back on the use of police to resolve community issues, especially after the George Floyd protests in summer 2020. That was the first ever protest she attended.

The 2020 protests started out with an explosion of feeling, anger, sadness. And being at City Hall, it was a combination of chants, cries, drums, the entire Fourth Street to Fifth Street on East Santa Clara, in front of City Hall, was occupied by people. And people were on top of the balconies, they were on top of the rocks. They were pouring into the street. And in the street, there were a line of police officers there. They had tanks on the corner of fourth and Santa Clara Street. 

Demonstrations escalated. The city enforced a curfew. Police used rubber bullets and tear gas to arrest protestors and passerbys. One man –out getting groceries– lost his eye after being hit by munition. Demonstrators accused the police of using excessive violence and filed a class-action lawsuit against SJPD,

Kiana’s experience at the protest and its aftermath led her to start a non-profit called HERO Tent. It helps unhoused people and victims of police shootings and works to bring about change through art.

One change HERO Tent works on is making sure the city doesn’t rely on the police as the go-to solution in addressing crises. Kiana says she is not the only one paying attention to the Mayor’s plans to increase policing downtown.

There's a lot of organizations that are paying attention and they're working on a response. 

In 2021, San Jose introduced a police reform plan and established an Advisory Committee to Reimagine Community Safety. The idea was for the police to work with community leaders to figure out how to intervene in conflicts and improve community-police relations.

HERO Tent, along with other community organizations, is a part of this advisory committee. So far, they’ve recommended the city increase police oversight and accountability, create non-police first-responder teams to address homelessness and addiction, and fund awareness campaigns for educating people on when it’s necessary to call 911.

The mayor's budget proposal just completely goes against the Reimagining Community Safety Advisory Committee, or commission that was set up. It's really disappointing to see the recommendations that the Mayor and City Council are like, putting out without even listening to that process that are making recommendations on what to do with police. 

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

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

Through a translator, Daniel says it’s been stressful trying to stay safe while unhoused.

Most of the problems that concerned me were at nighttime when we were at the encampments and people would come into the encampments looking for somebody but really, they were looking to rob people. Which always made me have to be alert, and it was really tiring and agitating to live like that.

Daniel’s been working with a non-profit called Downtown Streets Team to find stable housing and employment. He says he tends to keep to himself and tries to avoid trouble--but he sometimes feels unwelcome by the police. It’s not him they are there to protect, especially when launching programs to address the homeless crisis.

Sometimes when they are starting programs, and they're gonna have officers out, they tend to look down on the unhoused population and look at us like trash. So it's [about] changing some of their perceptions on the unhoused population so that they can help. 

Public safety means different things to different people and it’ll be challenging to find a solution that satisfies all parties. The mayor continues to hear from business owners like Adolfo who want the police to be easily accessible in order to deter crime. Whereas residents like Kiana and Daniel want to make sure all residents downtown are treated with care by the right responders. The Mayor is expected to have a revised budget sometime this summer.

KALW News Crosscurrents
I'm an audio content creator interested in people-powered media and making knowledge accessible to and engaging for all. I believe in a queer of color approach to knowledge production and storytelling. I got my start in broadcast journalism at KCSB 91.9 in Santa Barbara and am currently working with API (Asian Pacific Islander) Equality--Northern California on a podcast documenting intergenerational queer and trans API connection. My favorite things to listen to are This American Life, Jour 1 by Hildegard, my friends' hot takes, and the round tapping sounds of a mechanical keyboard.