San Jose businesses face violent altercations against workers, merchandise theft

Stephanie Slocum and her husband have owned a bicycle shop in San Jose for just over a year and during most of that time, it’s been a game of financial whack-a-mole. They’ve replaced five smashed windows and lost two bikes to theft. The total cost for repairs and replacements for Upshift Cycles on The Alameda? $20,000.

“I have the window guy on speed dial,” Slocum said dryly while standing in the back alley of her business. “It’s depressing.”

Pictures of damage to the windows of Upshift Cycles on The Alameda that occurred in March. (Courtesy Stephanie Slocum) 

On the same street in the city’s Rose Garden neighborhood over the past year: A manager at Uncle John’s Pancake House recalled dodging a near blow by a woman. An assistant general manager at the Five Guys hamburger joint next door said a man she had kicked out of the restaurant confronted her outside and smacked a visor off her head. And at Starbucks, a recent violent incident pushed workers to unionize out of fear for their collective safety.

The repeated property crimes, theft and disturbing confrontations with individuals exhibiting erratic behavior have left San Jose business owners and employees frustrated — a precarious situation that mirrors what has already started to boil over in San Francisco.

Whole Foods recently announced it was shuttering its flagship store after just one year of operation because of theft and employee safety concerns. The store had previously reduced its business hours citing similar issues.

According to data collected by the FBI on San Jose’s crime statistics, the reported incidents afflicting the city’s businesses reveal a mixture of trends.

When it comes to property crime — which includes burglary, larceny theft and vehicle theft — the data shows the city fluctuating between 25,000 to 28,000 total incidents per year between 2012 and 2022, with no major recent spikes in any of the categories. As for burglaries, there’s been a downward trend since 2012, with 5,206 incidents that year, the highest number in about a decade.

Stephanie Slocum, co-owner of Upshift Cycles, works on a computer at Upshift Cycles on The Alameda in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, April 12, 2023. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)
Stephanie Slocum, co-owner of Upshift Cycles, works on a computer at Upshift Cycles on The Alameda in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, April 12, 2023. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group) 

Certain violent crimes paint a different portrait. Though San Jose saw a considerable drop in the early 2000s in reported aggravated assaults, there’s been a steady upward trend between 2012 and 2022, with 2,853 incidents last year, the highest since 2002.

Mayor Matt Mahan, in an interview about the problems facing businesses, said San Jose will not face the same uncertain fate as its northern neighbor, which faces similar problems with property crime, untreated mental illness and drug abuse in its Tenderloin neighborhood and beyond.

“I take these issues very seriously,” he said. “I will say emphatically that San Jose will not become San Francisco. I think everyone deserves to live in a safe and clean environment.”

Specifically on mental health, the mayor said the focus should not be on jail but on improving the mental health infrastructure — and tweaking state laws to quickly get care to people.

For employees and business owners in and outside of San Jose’s downtown corridor — who already deal with the day-to-day struggle of working in the service industry — adjustments are already being made.

Along a small stretch of The Alameda, Uncle John’s manager Elizabeth Chavarin said she and her colleagues used to offer coffee to the occasional homeless resident, especially this past winter as temperatures plummeted. But that all changed in mid-March when employees held a meeting after a number of incidents involving hostile individuals escalated. Chavarin recalls feinting as a crazed woman swung at her.

“The new policy is no free food,” Chavarin said during one of her Wednesday shifts. “We try to meet them outside now. Some understand.”

Across the street, Starbucks employees described a Feb. 1 incident when a man entered the store and started provoking customers, then turned physical.

“He started getting aggressive,” recalled former employee Marcel Gomez. “He then punches me in the back of the head and got on top of me.” Police eventually showed up — but Gomez chose not to press charges because of the man’s mental state. The incident pushed him and a handful of colleagues to unionize in protest of their safety conditions at the store. (The company’s leadership has publicly stated they’re against the unionization of Starbucks stores.)

About two miles east in downtown, businesses described similar incidents.

One cafe owner, who asked not to give his name as he feared becoming a target, said vandals have broken his front door windows five times since it opened six months ago. Tablets, cash and other items have been stolen. He’s witnessed a customer being “sucker punched” — and stopped putting up outdoor lights on the shop’s exterior because people kept cutting them down and using the outlets to charge their phones.

His employees “shouldn’t have to deal with this,” he said.

For their part, San Jose officials said they are aware of the problems facing businesses — and a public meeting in March noted that quality of life issues in downtown have caused “increasing concern” among businesses and residents over the course of the pandemic.

San Jose Police Department Spokesperson Sgt. Jorge Garibay said a combination of mental health advocates and walking patrol officers are working to make sure businesses are safe. But police staffing is a consistent challenge, he said. The mayor is seeking to hire 30 extra police officers a year.

“We simply do not have the staffing to be everywhere that we would like to be,” he wrote in a statement. “But I want to make it clear that our Department is taking proactive steps every day in partnership with our community stakeholders to improve the quality of life downtown as well as throughout the city of San Jose.” Nathan Donato-Weinstein, who the city has assigned the task of reinvigorating downtown, deferred all questions to the police department.

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