Mardi Gras and The San Jose Party Police
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 call.
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 cars.
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 tactics.
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
But 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 January alone
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.
Many club managers, downtown residents and even club regulars are relieved the police are out in force when the alcohol stops flowing at 1:30 a.m.
"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 there."
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 be."
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 streets.
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.
To 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.
At one 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."
Last 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
Many people 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."
Clubgoer and 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 of control."
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.