LONG BEACH — Melvin Gallwas makes a point of driving through Bixby Park on his way home from work every day. He usually gets there about 2 a.m. and the place is teeming.
"The neighbors were complaining about lots of cruising, so I had to go there myself to see if they were right," said Gallwas, a lieutenant in the Long Beach Police Department. "They were."
Gallwas has been making the trek regularly since April 19. That is when he was assigned to head a special police task force aimed at curbing crime in the park. The task force was created after representatives of the local gay and lesbian community and two park-area homeowner organizations held a well-publicized meeting to demand action against rampant cruising and prostitution in the park, primarily at night by male homosexuals.
Last week the group met again, this time to hear progress reports from Gallwas, City Manager James C. Hankla, City Councilman Wallace Edgerton and Police Chief Lawrence Binkley.
"I think you'll agree that we're doing better," Binkley said in a statement that drew mixed reactions from the estimated 100 residents gathered in the clubhouse at the park, bounded by Cherry and Junipero avenues, Broadway and Ocean Boulevard.
Patrol Time Increased
Although the number of officers patrolling the park area has not been increased, Gallwas said in an interview later, the amount of time they spend in the park has been increased by "redirecting" their uncommitted patrol time so that each officer is required to check the park at least three times per shift.
As a result, he said, arrests and citations in and near Bixby Park have gone up dramatically: from a mere handful three months ago to more than 120 since April. The crimes committed, Gallwas said, have ranged from moving traffic violations and illegal parking, to felony possession of drugs for sale, drinking in public and soliciting acts of prostitution.
In addition, Gallwas said, police officers have questioned more than 50 "suspicious" individuals in the park since the task force began.
It was exactly that kind of police action that in the past led to numerous complaints of harassment by area homosexuals. But since the new effort began, said Rick Rosen, chairman of the gay-oriented Lambda Democratic Club's police relations committee, he has received only one complaint of police harassment, a complaint he considered unsubstantiated.
"Things are going pretty well," said Rosen, who helped organize the two public meetings. "The police are being quite professional."
Park Rangers Promised
In addition to being told about the new police task force, the assembled residents heard Hankla promise to assign a group of city park rangers to Bixby Park on weeknights and Saturdays and received a pledge by Edgerton to place whatever else they proposed on the City Council's agenda for approval.
To that end, the residents formally adopted the idea of erecting barriers on the two streets traversing the park to impede traffic from midnight to 5 a.m. And they voted overwhelmingly to endorse a proposed anti-cruising ordinance that would make it illegal to drive more than twice within a four-hour period past a designated "cruise control" point.
But the idea of changing the park's curfew from midnight to 10 p.m. inspired heated debate.
"The people in the park after 10 p.m. are your neighbors and friends, such as me," Rosen said. "Police attention would be diverted from the real problems to whether someone is in the park illegally. Inherently this will generate hostility and problems which will take away from the consensus that has been built."
In the end, the proposal won narrow endorsement.
Elderly Don't Understand
Reactions to the meeting were decidedly mixed.
Jerry Coates, a neighborhood activist, said he was deeply distressed by the vote to ask for an earlier curfew. "A lot of these people are older and don't understand the younger person's point of view," said Coates, 40. "At night is when I like to go out and walk. Some of the older people are just set in their ways."
Gary Severns, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, said that the increased police presence had not yet made a noticeable dent in the cruising problem, which he described as "horrendous." Still, he conceded, the meetings had been helpful.
"I think it's a step in the right direction," Severns said. "It's going to take continuous working."