It took six years from securing a rent voucher for Shante Thomas to find a place to call home. As a Black trans woman—an identity more prone to abuse than virtually any other—15 years of roughing it in homeless camps and skeevy motel rooms left her covered head-to-toe in third-degree burns, blind in one eye and mentally scarred.
After braving the elements as long as she did, Thomas, 46, says the one-bedroom flat a few stories over the grandiloquent foyer of San Jose’s Vintage Towers felt like a fortress. On a white board atop a wall shelf in her small living room, Thomas wrote a message in red-and-black marker for all who enter: “Welcome to the house of love and peace.”
The display, lovingly embellished with two cartoon hearts, now reads like a cruel joke.
At about a quarter to midnight on May 30, that sense of safety came crashing down in a hail of rubber bullets and shattered glass.
It was the end of the second of San Jose’s protests against police brutality, a demonstration that drew thousands of people and prompted a hell-hath-no-fury backlash from the city’s law enforcement.
Thomas, who spent the better part of the day watching the events from her living room, says police had already cleared Santa Clara Street of lingering protesters. A smartphone video shot from her window shows officers in a line outside City Hall, backlit by blindingly bright lights that make it hard to see which of them aimed those stocky black riot guns in her direction. “Then, all I heard was, ‘Pow!’” she recounts. “All of a sudden, these things came smashing through the windows—glass flying everywhere—and I was like, ‘Oh f*ck, get down, get down, get down!’”
One of the black rounds pelted her in the chest. Another struck her friend’s 16-year-old daughter, who’d been sitting by the window a room over.
A metal canister landed on the living room floor, exploding in a burst of white pepper spray that threw them all into eye-watering coughing fits.
In what felt like two minutes, a cadre of cops came pounding on her door, offering help. Doubtful of their good intentions, Thomas refused to open the door. Muscles tensed, heart pounding, she waited them out.
Nights have been restless ever since, she says. Every loud noise makes her drop to the floor—especially during the week-and-a-half it took for apartment managers to replace her windows. Meanwhile, her landlord is trying to stick her with the bill, saying police accused her of defenestrating beer bottles—a charge Thomas denies, citing cellphone footage of the incident as proof.
“Why in the hell would I do that?” she asks. “Why would I risk losing my beautiful home that I waited so long for, that I pay rent for, that I made into my own personal sanctuary? Does that make any damn sense to you? Hmmm? I don’t think so.”
Should the landlord takes SJPD’s word for it, Thomas may lose her first and only home, which she says feels more like a trap now anyway.
On the streets, at least, she knows where to hide. “If I see a cop,” she says, “let me tell you, honey—heels on or heels off, I’m gonna run.”
After witnessing SJPD respond to protests against police brutality with literally bone-breaking force, it seems the whole city has trust issues.
As daily demonstrations continue on in the heart of the city, San Jose has fielded an unprecedented 1,500 complaints about police misconduct. Protesters maimed by SJPD’s indiscriminate less-lethal fire have turned the city into a cautionary tale about the militaristic excess of modern American law enforcement. A botched curfew enacted to quell the protests became another example of the racial inequities that prompted civil unrest in the first place. An analysis by this news organization found that SJPD issued roughly 70 percent of curfew citations to African Americans and Latinos.
Frustrations have mounted enough for local leaders to confront an idea they would’ve dismissed as too radical just weeks ago.
In more than 3,000 letters and hundreds of minute-long speeches at recent City Council hearings, people have urged San Jose to “defund police.”
Depending on who you ask, that means anything from abolition to a sweeping reallocation of law enforcement funding to community services. Already, Minneapolis has heeded the call, agreeing to dismantle the police department that killed Floyd. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed to slash the police budget and invest that money in Black and Brown communities. San Francisco Mayor London Breed promised to follow suit, though she has yet to determine a dollar amount.
In San Jose—where police take up about 30 percent of the city’s $4 billion budget, 44 percent of the general fund—Mayor Sam Liccardo initially rejected calls to defund.
Though Liccardo says he’s since adopted a more nuanced view of the matter, he still opposes the idea of cutting into the police budget. When a group of Black Lives Matter protesters spoke to him outside City Hall earlier this week, he explained his reasoning by telling them that most of his constituents want more police, not less.
Even if San Jose doesn’t go so far as Minneapolis, the only ex-cop on the council says he thinks the city’s in for a shakeup. “That’s a good thing,” says Councilman Raul Peralez, an SJPD officer from 2007 until his election in 2014. “We should embrace it.”
Though city leaders hesitate to embrace the demands of defunders and on Tuesday voted to keep the police department’s $449 million budget intact, pressure from the movement has already prompted several changes.
Cornered by an outraged citizenry, the San Jose Police Officers’ Association—which has a history of trying to get out ahead of things by proposing fixes before they’re imposed—unveiled a reform plan to root out racist cops. The council has moved to at least study the possibilities of waiving legal immunity for officers accused of wrongdoing, banning “no knock” entries and creating a public database of police misconduct. In his revised budget message, Mayor Liccardo called for the creation of an Office of Racial Equity, for which the council voted on Tuesday to set aside $2 million in funding over the next two years. Chief Eddie Garcia agreed to drastically curtail use of rubber bullets.
Whether those efforts go far enough is a matter of debate.
Meanwhile, Peralez urged the city to commission an independent study of SJPD’s protest response, which he decried for protecting property over people. He also proposed a task force on the future of policing, which he hopes will address concerns raised by defunding proponents about law enforcement having become a catch-all for too many social ills.
“I saw that firsthand,” he attests.
As a school resource officer, Peralez says he’d often get summoned to campus over “minor disputes” that could’ve been resolved without an armed cop. “Plenty of times I felt out of place,” he says, “and I’d tell them, ‘I’m not your school disciplinarian.’”
A similar pattern emerged while on patrol for the graveyard shift. From 9pm until 7 the next morning, Peralez says he’d often get called to family conflicts and other situations that he felt didn’t really merit a police response. Since Santa Clara County didn’t staff social workers overnight, however, he had no choice.
“I’d get really frustrated,” he says. “Because here I am, an officer with a badge and a gun and I’m trying to mediate a dispute with an unruly child. Ideally, I’d be a last resort. But in reality, I was the only person they could call.”
Anyone calling to defund police should also pressure the county—as a public welfare authority—to invest in the kinds of safety-net services relegated to law enforcement, Peralez says. And they should realize that the process wouldn’t look the same as in other jurisdictions. As a city-county hybrid, San Francisco, for example, can reallocate police funding more readily than San Jose, which is bound to a strictly municipal role.
“We’ve been getting a lot of community members wondering why we don’t just shift funding to social services,” he says, “but we can’t move city dollars to the county. We’re going to have to work together to determine what we can shift away from our police department and assign to social services, which is the county’s job to provide.”
As a former cop, Peralez says he fully endorses the idea of reclaiming social work from the realm of law enforcement. Chief Garcia does, too, having lamented on many occasions about the undue burden placed on officers responding to mental health calls.
“Reimagining policing and investing in our community do not have to be mutually exclusive,” Peralez wrote in a June 11 memo that came before his colleagues earlier this week. “The lack of funding prioritization for social programs must be addressed for there to be redirection in how police budgets are designed and how officers are utilized, but they don’t have to come at the expense of one another.”
Community service officers—a civilian role created to deal with police work that doesn’t require an armed response—are one way to bridge that gap. In a policy proposal dropped Monday, Peralez suggests restoring a planned $700,000 cut to the community service officer budget through 2021 and just as much for the year after. “We struggled for years to get these positions here in San Jose,” he says. “And when we finally got them, they were extremely well received by our police department and had a great response from the community. These aren’t armed individuals and they’re trained to deal with various tasks that take the burden off sworn officers. We should lean on them more.”
Greg Woods, who teaches criminology at San Jose State, says he’s heartened by the plans emerging from the city’s present crisis. However, he adds, San Jose would be wise to learn from the past century of local police-community relations.
“Whenever I hear about task forces and studies and commissions, I’m tempered by history,” he says. “We tend to relive the same scenario over and over again, with changes being pushed on the next generation.”
While many cities attribute the founding of their police oversight office to a single transformative event, San Jose’s emerged from decades of pent-up frustrations.
In the 1930s, with San Jose in the throes of economic depression, the city fulminated with discontent, giving rise to a mob of about 10,000 and a lynching in St. James Park. Police responded by blasting fire hoses on the crowd, among other dispersal tactics that Woods says would shock the conscience by today’s standards.
Distrust of police stemmed from routine enforcement, too, of course. Before the 1948 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer struck down racial covenants, which sanctioned race-restricted property deeds, the mere presence of a non-white person in certain neighborhoods gave police probable cause to detain them.
Even after the landmark court ruling, generations of racial enforcement evolved into “Broken Windows” policing. So-called vagrancy laws were supplanted by effectively identical offenses, such as “obstructing pedestrian traffic” and “disorderly conduct.” That troubling legacy lives on to this day in Santa Clara County’s most heavily policed ZIP codes, the bulk of which lie in San Jose’s East Side, where young Latino men routinely get stopped and ticketed as part of SJPD’s gang suppression efforts.
Twenty-three years before the council’s unanimous vote to establish the Independent Police Auditor’s Office, a protest ignited over a derogatory depiction of a Mexican pushing a burro in the city’s Fiesta de las Rosas parade. It was 1969 when Bob Gonzales (father of future Mayor Ron Gonzales) convened a group of what one participant described to a reporter as “church people, families and students” who trailed the procession to express their grievance.
According to a Mercury News article published 25 years later, police tried to disband the march by “hitting people because they didn’t want any disruption of the parade.” The bloody clash ended with 23 arrests, dozens of injuries and the city’s Latino residents shaken by the city establishment’s show of force against them.
Then-SJPD Chief Bill Landsowne called it “one of the first confrontations we had in the city,” according to the same Merc story.
“It got out of hand and we didn’t have enough people to deal with the problem. … We got training for crowd control as a result of that,” he said.
Another result: a grassroots push to police the police.
San Jose’s first documented Community Alert Patrols arose in 1972, according to Francisco Jimenez’s Ethnic Community Builders, a history of the city’s Mexican-American struggle for civil rights. The volunteer cohorts equipped with two-way radios and scanners would go to where police would be dispatched—sometimes before the cops even got there—and watch the watchers to document any abuses.
The community patrols, which turned Our Lady of Guadalupe Church into unofficial headquarters, would jot down officer names and badge numbers and take photos of police in the line of duty. At its peak, about 1,000 people joined in the effort, which focused on the city’s largely Latino East Side. “The Community Alert Patrol changed how the police treated us,” says an activist cited in Jimenez’s book.
Despite the scrutiny, tensions flared with police killings of Manuel Villa in 1969, John Henry Smith Jr. in 1971 and Danny Trevino, whose death elicited 800 complaints against officers in 1976. Even so, it wasn’t until the nationwide reckoning brought by Rodney King’s brutal beating in 1992 that San Jose formalized civilian oversight. And SJPD resisted it by boasting about its aptitude for self-policing.
Earlier this month, at a June 4 press conference to justify SJPD’s aggressive protest tactics, Chief Garcia and Capt. Jason Dwyer echoed similar assurances. The PD will own its mistakes and review every complaint, Garcia promised, “because that’s what a professional department does.”
A laudable goal, to be sure. But it misses the point. Sure, SJPD has shrunk racial disparities in its application of force and validates a healthy number of claims against its own officers. But it takes more than stats and data dashboards to assuage a fed-up citizenry wondering why their local police force looks and feels like a standing army.
“It’s about trust,” Woods says. “The more force you use, the less trust you get; the more trust you have, the less force you need.”
As the city prepares to form commissions and committees to figure out how to reimagine policing, Woods says he hopes it remembers that the solutions lie in plain sight.
From the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 in which the British grappled with increasingly militarized law enforcement, to the Task Force on 21st Century Policing under President Obama, the prescriptions remain pretty consistent: minimize force, forge credible community relationships and prevent crime by addressing societal ills such as poverty, mental illness and homelessness.
“Time and again, the conclusions are the same,” Woods says. “Progressive law enforcement means policing by consent. If we have a commitment in San Jose to those principals, then I think things will change for the better.”
Yet the push to defund portends a deeper reckoning for local law enforcement, one that demands justification for its very existence.
Though crime rates have steadily fallen since the early 1990s, incarceration has skyrocketed because of the nation’s penchant for aggressive policing that disproportionately targets Black and Brown people with stops, summonses and arrests.
Police correctly perceive the public’s anger toward them. But while union leaders and top brass respond with vows to change, many of the officers they represent adopt a defensive warrior-cop ethos that presumes they’re under perpetual threat.
That’s why Capt. Dwyer can keep a straight face while describing protesters as enemy combatants. It’s why Officer Jared Yuen amped himself up before unloading a riot gun on protesters by barking about getting “these motherf*ckers.” It’s why SJPD officers mock demands for justice in closed Facebook groups.
Maybe San Jose’s planned future-of-policing task force will delve into a culture that manifests in the skirmish lines, riot gear and weapons on display at recent protests. For now, regardless of SJPD’s justifications for resorting to that level of force, the city remains haunted by images of bystanders bludgeoned by rubber bullets and wheezing from chemical weapons.
“Viscerally, on a gut level, we don’t like what we see,” Woods remarks. “So, the question is, how do you apologize your way out of that? I’m not sure a task force or blue-ribbon commission is quite enough.”