Large Number of Officers Near Clubs Relieves Some, Irks Others
By Patrick May, San Jose Mercury News
It's 1:35 a.m. on a recent Sunday in downtown San Jose. All seems
calm. But wait. A long stretch of South First Street has been blocked
off by police. Second and Santa Clara is crawling with cops. Dozens
of cruisers, lights flashing, have shut down an intersection. What's
going on? Hostage situation? Terrorist attack?
Nope. It's just last
Like kids at the closing school bell, thousands of nightclub
patrons are about to spill onto downtown sidewalks. Beefy
flashlight-toting security guards -- with pumped-up police officers
looking on -- will herd the twentysomething revelers toward their
This nightly ritual -- especially intense on weekends -- has
fueled a divisive debate. For some, the police tactics are a good way
to quell a potentially explosive mix of alcohol, exuberance and
testosterone. For others, they are law enforcement overkill,
bordering on harassment.
On Tuesday night, the police face their
ultimate test: Mardi Gras -- an event that in recent years has
spawned not only a rock-throwing melee, but also the harshest
criticism of the department's handling of downtown revelers. Last
year, 20 people were arrested amid complaints of heavy-handed
Despite several years of disturbances and efforts by the
city, police and even club owners to tone things down, thousands are
expected Tuesday night, including the underage partyers who have
caused the most problems in the past.
"We're gearing up for a busy
night," said Rob Orner, general manager of the San Jose Bar &
Grill. The club and its two sister clubs, Tres Gringos and VooDoo
Lounge, have boosted private security for Tuesday to 45 from the
typical 30 to help avoid a repeat of last year's violence. "After
last year, we found that to keep our customers safe we had to put a
lot of security people out front. There were people in line outside
who got dragged along by the hoodlums and the police in riot gear.
This time, our security guards will create a buffer to protect our
customers from any troublemakers."
A show of force
while Mardi Gras is the extreme, a look at what happens on an
ordinary weekend night illustrates why so many who drive through
downtown, or stop for a drink, form powerful impressions of San Jose
and the way its police handle disruption.
"To see all these cops
tells me that this place is dangerous," said Natalie Standlee, a
25-year-old nurse from Palo Alto, who was coming out of Tres Gringos
on Second Street during her first trip downtown. "It's my first time
here -- and probably my last."
As closing time nears, the police
presence can grow to as many as 37 officers for 10,000 clubgoers on a
busy night, a similar ratio to San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter where
about 15 officers deal with about 5,000 clubbers.
In downtown San
Jose, the police have been criticized for overzealousness. In an
effort to control congestion -- and discourage cruisers and underage
partyers -- they ticket for anything from jaywalking to pulling a
"California stop" at a stop sign, issuing 1,223 citations downtown in
But what's going on is more complicated than simply
hardheaded law enforcement. In a carefully orchestrated offensive,
crafted by a 51-year-old sergeant named Sergio Carabarin, a
seven-officer team works with private guards to clear downtown at 2
a.m. It's a high-wire act. Retreat too far and fistfights can
mushroom into larger disturbances. But come down too hard, and police
risk intimidating and alienating the very people the clubs and the
city depend on for this thriving nightclub scene.
managers, downtown residents and even club regulars are relieved the
police are out in force when the alcohol stops flowing at 1:30
"I'd rather have too many cops than have drunks walking by and
harassing my customers," says cafe owner Paul Zumot, whose Hookah
Nites sidewalk tables are tempting targets for rambunctious
club-crawlers. "Sergio and his guys are great; they'll talk to you
and try and solve problems, much more than the cops did in Seattle
where I worked before. We were thinking of opening up in San Diego's
Gaslamp Quarter, but they have way too many fights down
Looking for trouble
On this recent Saturday night,
Carabarin meets with his officers around 11 p.m., then sends each out
to a post. Trouble spots are a moving target, given the fluid state
of the downtown scene. "When a club becomes popular," says officer
Kevin Laundrie, 35, "that's where all your problems will
Here's a snapshot: La Cumbre, a ranchero dance hall on San
Pedro Street, is unknown because it opens for business tonight. A new
hot spot is Second Street between Santa Clara and San Fernando
streets where Tres Gringos and San Jose Bar & Grill have recently
joined Toons and VooDoo Lounge to create a party magnet.
In an old
Ford with 93,000 miles and a new dashboard computer screen, Carabarin
makes his rounds. Music is pounding inside the hip-hop loft at the
B-Hive and at Chacho's on Almaden Avenue. Fanny & Alexander has a
sizable crowd, as do Zoë and Agenda, which along with Spy
dominate the party-central crossroads of First and San Salvador
Carabarin does the math, then orders up 27 officers to
stay on overtime. At 1 a.m., the team moves into position. Their
goal: block off key intersections, then back up guards as they nudge
the revelers into their cars. To prevent fights, the officers monitor
parking lots where the hard-core continue to drink or fight.
prevent a logjam, Carabarin will stagger club closings -- tonight,
Agenda lets out first so police can focus on the crowd at Zoë.
"For us, in a way it's like babysitting," Carabarin says.
intersection, the handful of police are clearly outnumbered by the
1,400 patrons about to burst through the doors. So police use what
Carabarin calls "smoke and mirrors to give us a tactical advantage."
One trick: Officers wait on the center line of First Street, which is
humped and gives them a foot-high vantage point above the sidewalk.
To the crowd, the officers look more imposing, while the police are
able to look down into the throng on the sidewalk.
"It's like a big
chess game," says Carabarin, who says, "we always give people
options. We want to use arrests as the option of last resort."
month, police arrested 71 people in the area around the clubs and
broke up 24 fights, which police say is on the low side. "A crowd
will start to surround the guys fighting," the sergeant says, "and
pretty soon it's WWF time."
Support for policy
who know the club scene well or work or live in the area are
convinced things would spiral out of control without a pronounced
police presence. VooDoo manager Daniel Shea says the uniformed backup
"may seem like overkill, but a lot of people who come down here have
a hard time knowing what's right and wrong. The moment the cops leave
the undesirables will show up."
Veteran club entrepreneur Jacek
Rosicki, who now oversees Zoë and Agenda, says shutting down
traffic at closing time probably saves lives. "Without the police
blocking these streets, you'd get over 1,000 kids coming out of the
clubs at once and someone would get hit by a car."
waiter Joon Pak, 21, says that while "too strong of a police presence
is uncomfortable -- and I do empathize with people who feel like this
is a police state down here -- without the cops things would be out
Guards using flashlights and their own commanding
physical heft have herded out most of Zoë's partyers by 2:05
a.m. Carabarin prefers letting the guards escort patrons. "These
security guys have more pull than we do, because the kids know if
they want to be allowed back in next week they've got to behave.
Sometimes, the guards will give people a two-week timeout before they
can come back."
At the end of his long shift, Carabarin climbs back
into his Ford.
At 2:24 a.m. he tells downtown officers their
night's work is done by typing a coded message into his computer: "ez
units clear 1019 thnx."
Then Carabarin heads for home through what
is now a relatively calm and quiet downtown San Jose.