From the editor: San Jose police detention of journalists is City Hall’s problem

The morning after one of our freelance reporters covering the George Floyd protests was detained by San Jose police and left on the ground, my phone lit up from a text message from Police Chief Eddie Garcia.

“Ramona, saw you tweet last night,” he wrote. “Getting more information on all of that. Let me know if you’re up to talking later today.”

He beat me to it. I’d planned to text Garcia, whom I’ve known and worked with for years as a political reporter in the South Bay.

A couple hours later, Garcia, myself and the freelance journalist, Luke Johnson, hopped on a call. After three nights of protests in downtown San Jose culminating in a curfew Sunday that only seemed to pour salt in the wound, Garcia sounded tired. But he was apologetic and gracious.

His explanation, however, left me with more questions than answers. Garcia said the curfew order — which was set to go into effect Sunday night — was not shared with him until minutes before patrol officers went out at 3 p.m. to City Hall to disperse the crowds. There was not enough time to tell officers that reporters were exempt from the curfew, Garcia said.

“The messaging to them about the parameters of the order and the fact that press was exempt may not have gotten out,” Garcia told us. “We didn’t get the message out as clearly as we would have liked because (the officers) were already on the line.”

In other words, Garcia’s officers went to City Hall to blindly enforce a citywide curfew order that they weren’t fully briefed on. They had no clue who was exempt from the order they were being asked to enforce.

I pressed Garcia to learn what time the curfew order was signed. After searching his email inbox, he said he wasn’t sure when it was signed, but he received it from Lee Wilcox, the city manager’s chief of staff, and forwarded it to his deputy chief to relay the message to officers at 2:50 p.m. Sunday.

Ten minutes before his officers went out to enforce it. And a mere 5½ hours before it would go into effect at 8:30 p.m. that night.

It’s easy to blame the police chief for questionable enforcement practices. There have been documented use-of-force against protesters this past week that raise serious questions, including a lip-licking officer who shouted profanity and appeared to enjoy shooting rubber rounds at protesters a little too much.

And it goes without saying that once Johnson identified himself as a journalist — which he did — he should’ve been asked to show his credentials and then freed. There is no question that leaving him on the ground without any further instructions is absolutely wrong.

Top elected leaders, including Mayor Sam Liccardo, condemned the troubling behavior in a San Jose Inside article. Mercury News reporter Maggie Angst was also detained alongside Johnson.

But the lack of communication that led to officers being sent to the front lines without the full details of a curfew order they were required to enforce goes beyond Garcia. It’s a problem with the city administration, and it’s a typical knee-jerk reaction from San Jose City Hall.

To sign a curfew order days after protests had begun in San Jose and to expect officers to enforce it without having all the details shows a lack of organization, coordination and leadership. And it’s under those chaotic circumstances that mistakes like this happen. Mistakes that violate people’s rights. Mistakes that tarnish public trust. Mistakes that can cost someone’s life.

The curfew was called off by lawmakers two days after it was clumsily enacted and advocates rightfully raised concerns about how it elevated tensions and confrontational policing.

This lack of direction from City Hall is indicative of a bigger problem. It is those same political leaders and bureaucrats who decide policies that can perpetuate structural racism, further divide our community and exclude communities of color, who are fighting for a seat at the table. Many of the discriminatory policies cities have today — policies that make it difficult for people of color to own a home, receive quality medical care or send their kids to good schools — stemmed from the hallways of City Halls across the nation.

For example, a land use policy that applies only in East San Jose and allows displacing minority-owned businesses without a thorough public process. People of color here experience homelessness at significantly higher rates and researchers blame “structural inequities,” such as a racial wage gap and lack of economic opportunities.

San Jose police pulled over and detained black and Latino residents at far higher percentages than their population, a 2015 Mercury News analysis found. And when it comes to public funding, some East San Jose neighborhoods lack basic services and amenities — one district didn’t even have a dog park.

That’s why there needs to be a higher standard. City Hall decisions need to be less reactionary, more thoughtful and keep in mind how they affect historically disadvantaged people. It gives me hope that some San Jose councilmembers are fighting to address inequities and many of them signed an important pledge this week — but they’ve been fighting since before COVID-19.

Before George Floyd.

When does talk become action? When do leaders put their money where their mouth is and adopt smart policies that address racial disparities in underserved communities of color? San Jose’s last-minute curfew and its botched execution did anything but that.

Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Like Johnson, our journalists are putting themselves at risk every day to bring you these important stories from the ground. Please consider helping us continue this work by becoming a sustaining member and supporting our local journalism.

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