San Jose City Council eases tough police tactics on public drunkenness
By Sean Webby
Posted: 06/02/2009 05:46:01 PM PDT
Updated: 06/03/2009 06:05:12 AM PDT
After seven months of community outcry, the San Jose City Council voted 8 to 1 Tuesday night to reform police practices that have resulted in more people being criminally charged with being drunk in public than anywhere else in the state.
The council voted to halt the practice of criminally charging people with public intoxication unless they had repeatedly been detained in the past for drunkenness. The shift will allow the police to continue jailing the dangerously drunk, but in most cases will cause those arrested to be released after regaining sobriety, rather than facing a criminal record.
The issue has divided the city since last October, when the Mercury News reported that San Jose police arrested 4,661 people on charges of being drunk in public in 2007 â€” far more than any other police agency â€” and that 57 percent of those arrested were Latino. The city faces two federal lawsuits from people who claim they were wrongly charged with public drunkenness.
Community groups contended that the city had targeted Latino residents and too often arrested people for what the police considered bad attitudes, rather than for criminal conduct â€” a charge police officials denied.
The city formed a task force of community leaders, city officials and law enforcement representatives, but those meetings quickly became contentious. Six members of the task force resigned in protest last month; the remaining members were to present
the council their final report before the vote Tuesday.
Under the proposed pilot program, someone could still be detained and forcibly brought to jail. But after some hours, the person would be released without charges. If a person is arrested six times
within a year â€” the statute of limitations for the crime â€” they could be prosecuted under the new plan.
But this baseline would only expose a tiny percentage of people to prosecution. The theory is that such people can be identified as needing more comprehensive help by the court and district attorney's office, which currently does not review a vast majority of the public intoxication cases.
This low-cost model is already being used successfully by agencies in northern Santa Clara County such as Palo Alto and Mountain View. Large cities, such as San Francisco, also use it.
And San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis has spoken in favor of it, although he initially suggested a lower number of arrests to trigger prosecution.
The task force also recommended that officers offer people being detained on suspicion of intoxication a chemical breath test and to document the results. This program was started by police in December. The law does not require an objective level of intoxication as does drunken driving, and the effect of drugs cannot be so measured. But they theoretically can provide police a sense of the level of intoxication they are facing in their suspects to add to the officer's observations of insobriety.
The task force also recommended the police continue its enhanced training for officers on making arrests for drunkenness and documenting them properly in reports.
The issue of public intoxication is certain to linger beyond the vote.
Many community activists allege the problems with the city's Police Department exist far beyond how it deals with public intoxication.
An interesting test of their allegations will come months from now with the findings of a consortium of social scientists, first brought to the city by Chief Davis, which has been tapped to closely study the public intoxication issue and other police issues.
And still to be resolved are the pending federal lawsuits, which contend the police force was unconstitutionally arresting people, especially Latinos, on suspicion of the misdemeanor.