San Jose police officers use nonstandard judgment in making arrests

October 30, 2008 — by Vijay Menon

Last year, the city of San Jose arrested 4,661 people for public drunkenness, by far the highest number in California. While these statistics may seem insignificant at first, they highlight a disturbing trend when put in context.

The only other city in the state that comes remotely near San Jose’s number of arrests is San Diego. Its population totals 300,000 more than San Jose, yet it had 1,400 fewer arrests. One must be skeptical of the absurd number of arrests in light of the fact that 60 percent of those arrested are Hispanic, a group that makes up only 32 percent of San Jose’s population.

The problem lies in the wording of the law on public intoxication, which does not require San Jose police officers to administer a breath or blood test to check for alcohol levels before arresting people. While officers can offer one, they rarely do.

Without a real basis by which to judge the level of drunkenness, San Jose officers are given free reign to make subjective decisions on whether or not a person is drunk. Giving officers this type of power is a recipe for abuse.

San Jose citizens have long complained that the police use the law as an excuse to arrest people whose attitudes they don’t like. The arrests are difficult to challenge or overturn due to the lack of objective evidence available to jurors.
Additionally, many of the arrests occurred downtown, where police officers are routinely stationed in low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Many Latinos have complained that they are being unfairly targeted by the heavy-handed police presence constantly around them.

Many police in downtown San Jose are stationed just outside of bars, waiting to make arrests. Clearly, these cops don’t have the protection of citizens in mind and are simply aiming to get as many arrests as possible.

The SJPD has tried to justify its high arrest numbers by claiming that the arrests save lives. The fact remains, however, that the law—rather, lack of law—encourages police abuse and that there are other far more important matters of public safety that the police could be attending to than public intoxication.

While one cannot be certain of how many of last year’s 4,661 arrests were abusive or discriminatory, the SJPD should resolve this troublesome situation by simply requiring its police officers to provide a breath test before making future arrests.

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