Spokesperson Liz Wylie says the visit by police was routine, and that the arrests were necessary for officers to maintain control of the situation. But those who attended the gathering of about 20 people around a fire pit in the driveway of their apartment complex say it appeared to be "pre-planned" when about 10 officers "swooped in" and arrested three people without much discussion or warning.
The incident occurred just before midnight on Friday, Sept. 11, when the friends, most of whom live there in the small complex, were having some beers and talking — not too loudly, they say. That's when a group of officers arrived, looking like a "Roman phalanx, a wall of armed guards" in the words of Thomas Lear, who claims he didn't say anything to police before being taken away.
Wylie said arrestees were taken in because they had not complied with orders to sit down.
"If you are trying to impede our work then, yeah, we stop being super-polite," she said. "We've got to gain control of the situation."
Three people were arrested for public drunkenness but not charged: Lear, 36, and Galen Wolf, 29, both of Mountain View; and Pooya Shai, 29, of San Jose. Though the three spent the night in jail, none was officially charged with being drunk in public. Wylie said that's standard police practice for non-repeat offenders.
The complex is largely occupied by friends and members of a heavy metal band called Raising the Dead, and is used for occasional parties and band practice every Friday night. Though their activities and appearance are unusual, resident Owen Johnston said, he and his friends have earned the respect of their neighbors by keeping their complex clean and ending band practice every Friday at 10 p.m. Johnston said neighbors had not called police about noise problems for two years.
Unlike a similar incident with Mountain View police last summer at 122 East Middlefield Road, which led to allegations of police brutality, police had not repeatedly warned partygoers to keep the noise down throughout the evening. This was their first visit to the group on Bush Street.
Ellen Wheeler, a school board member and lawyer, is Johnston's mother. She met with several witnesses last week and e-mailed some comments to the Voice.
"My son and his friends may look unconventional to the police, but I know them to be good people, with good jobs, good educations and good hearts," she wrote. Wheeler added that she hoped this would lead to a "teachable moment" for all involved.
Upon arrival, Wylie said, police found "approximately 20 people outside the front drinking and talking loudly. Officers asked them to sit down and asked them why they were there. Two subjects didn't comply and began shouting obscenities at officers, refusing to be quiet," she said.
"One of them basically began using the F-word, began screaming and refused to provide identification. One jumped into an officer's face."
Basically, she said, those people were being "uncooperative and belligerent" while everyone else was cooperative.
In separate interviews, Shahi and Lear said there was no shouting before or during the first two arrests and that everyone spoke calmly.
"After the arrests, yeah, maybe they were angry," said Shahi. "Before the arrests, no."
"The way they came in, they were not there to talk," he said. "They were there to arrest us."
Shahi said he was taken aside by police 20 seconds after returning to the party to ask questions about why officers were there out of "genuine concern" for his friends. "I was pretty much arrested immediately," Shahi said. "I guess I didn't move as fast as they were telling me to move."
According to police procedure, "We ask them to sit down so we can have some control over the situation," Wylie said. Police then make sure that someone present at the gathering actually lives there. Then police ask them to move the party inside. It usually works, she said.
"But if people right off the bat refuse a simple command like 'sit down' we stop asking them to listen and we begin ordering them to listen. We have to keep control of the situation for people's safety," Wylie said.
The "public drunkenness" charge puzzled Shahi and other partygoers who thought they were safe to drink on private property.
Wylie said the charge applies to any space accessible to the public, which includes private driveways and front yards. The charge also applies to a certain behavior, not a specific blood alcohol content level, she said.
"You have to be so intoxicated you have to be incapable of caring for yourself" or "are making poor decisions for yourself," Wylie said.
"I had four beers in a matter of three hours," Shahi said. "I was pretty sober in the drunk tank, I'll tell you that." He added that police refused his requests for a breathalyzer test.
Lear, Shahi and Johnston all said they were disappointed with the general conduct of the police officers, which they thought was unprofessional. For example, all three reporting hearing an officer humming Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." They said it appeared that "rookies" in white uniforms — actually community service officers — were taking notes and learning "bad behavior" from the other officers, one of whom, they said, referred to the group of friends as "crazy" as police arrived.
Wheeler suggested that police and those who were at the party sit down, talk and learn from it.
"It's important to look outside ourselves to see that we are all the same and then we can look inside ourselves to treat each other the same," Wheeler said. "This is what I'd like to happen as a result of this police incident."