Copwatcher Keeps a Bead on Police at Mardi Gras

Capital of tech preps for downtown revelry

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Silicon Valley Debug
    San Jose Copwatch's Brian Helmle is training his camera on officers at Mardi Gras.

    The "No Parking" signs are going up all over downtown San Jose, and the bars are stocking up on liquor.

    Tuesday is Mardi Gras -- a rare occasion for Silicon Valley's buttoned-up capital city to let down its hair, and local bar owners are optimistic that this year's celebration won't be marred by violence.

    "It'll be a pretty good night downtown," said Margaret Handyside, co-owner of The Brit.

    But for one veteran observer of local police, it's a chance to make sure San Jose's law enforcement don't overstep their authority.

    Just in case trouble breaks out again, Brian Helmle said he'll be right there, ready to capture it. Helmle and nine other people with the group San Jose Cop Watch will walk around downtown with cameras Tuesday night.

    "We observe police interaction with the community and record any interaction we think might be interesting," said Helmle.

    Helmle was arrested in 2006 for a Cinco De Mayo event in which he observed police officers' interactions with the community. Charges in the high-profile case were dropped in 2008.

    The mood in downtown San Jose is much different than in years past, when a near riot broke out on the streets of downtown San Jose on Mardi Gras 2006.

    In fact, last year, as many as six bars closed their doors on Mardi Gras.

    They weren't fearing the crowds, but rather the cops. The former owner of The Vault Ultralounge, Mauricio Mejia, told NBC Bay Area at the time that police were displaying a negative image of the downtown, swarming the area, making people fearful of the cops. So he closed and missed out on an estimated $10,000.

    This year, no bars announced they'd be closing.

    Helmle's announcement of his plans to observe police at the informal party comes on the heels of of numerous community complaints about how police patrol the downtown. Two South Bay assemblymembers had called for a state probe of police policies and procedures in San Jose, but they backed off after city officials requested time to finish their own analysis.

    The police presence for Mardi Gras will be lower-key this year. Police brass said they'd keep normal patrols downtown.

    But the rest of the force will be on high alert, in case trouble returns.

    Handyside said her bar was never victimzed by the past violence, and isn't fearful this year either.

    "It'll be fine," said Handyside. "I know people are worried but downtown is completely different than what it used to be. Police do a much better job".  

     But Helmle said  and his team will be there Tuesday night, just to be sure.