This summer, as stifling heat has driven huge crowds to the beaches and kept them there long into the night, their ranks have included growing numbers of gang members and, watching warily, newly strengthened police patrols.
Already a familiar presence at Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach and Dockweiler State Beach, gang members have been showing up in unprecedented numbers at beaches from Malibu to San Pedro, according to police and lifeguards.
"Normally, it is something you read about as a problem in someone else's community. But today, this year, now, it is something we are seeing on the beach," said Randy DeGregori, assistant chief lifeguard for the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors.
So far this summer, authorities say, there have been few violent outbursts by gangs at the beach. But as the growing numbers of gang members increase the chances of confrontations, police have moved quickly to prevent friction from escalating into violence.
Los Angeles police have added five officers to their Pacific Division beach patrols and extended patrol hours to 10:30 p.m. Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies have added similar patrols on Malibu Beach. Santa Monica police are now enforcing a 10 p.m. curfew to force juveniles away from the city's pier. Even the county's 700 lifeguards are for the first time being trained to recognize gang members and deal with incidents they may cause in beach areas.
The gang members usually loiter in beach parking lots, drinking and carousing, but rarely venturing onto the sand, authorities say.
Early last Friday morning, police said, a 29-year-old Hollywood woman was allegedly gang-raped in a beach parking lot north of the Santa Monica Pier. Although details are sketchy, Santa Monica police said they are investigating reports that the six suspects were gang members.
Just hours before that incident, after a dance concert ended on the pier, six gang members from Santa Monica milled about in the middle of the pier. As the 10 p.m. curfew passed, they remained at the pier, eyed by four other young gang members who stood nearby, leaning against a railing.
Dressed all in black, the four gang members began to saunter away when a reporter approached them. But one of the youths, who wore a Los Angeles Raiders cap cocked askew on his head, said: "We're not from down here"--a response that police say indicates that they were gang members from some other area.
"They're coming here from East L.A. and the Valley, from San Gabriel and Wilmington and West Covina," said Oscar, 18, a professed gang member who was one of the other six youths on the pier. "Why? They want to party over here. It's boring over there, wherever they're from."
Oscar and his fellow gang members claim that shootings are not uncommon near the beaches, but that few show up in crime reports. Police find out, they said, only if someone is killed or seriously hurt, but not when the bullets miss or cause minor injuries.
Police keep few statistics on gang-related incidents at state and local beaches. And those who do rarely break them down into areas as small as individual beaches. There have been a few incidents in which gang members have intimidated, robbed or assaulted beach-goers, police say. But more often, gangs clash with each other in fistfights and taunts that usually go unreported.
"We are not seeing such a high incidence that . . . is alarming or overwhelming," DeGregori said.
On Saturdays and Sundays, as many as 400 gang members hang out in the parking lots at Venice and Dockweiler, said Los Angeles Police Capt. Patrick Froehle, who supervises Pacific Division units from the Santa Monica city line to El Segundo.
Priscilla Thiry, who lives a block from Venice Beach, said gang members descend on her neighborhood "intensively," causing trouble and leaving graffiti. Thiry said she has complained to seven different police watch commanders and patrol officers.
Like other teen-agers on summer break, gang members head for the shore to socialize and have a good time. But by "flying their colors"--flaunting their gang ties with tattoos, baggy pants, jewelry and other gang-related clothing--they can easily turn a routine outing into a confrontation with a rival gang, authorities say.
The mere act of wearing their colors is enough to get some gang members ejected from beach areas. "If you're going to go there to fly your colors," said Detective Bill Humphry of the Los Angeles Police Department's anti-gang Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums unit, "you'll be asked to leave because all you're doing is provoking a confrontation."
On July 15, Humphry said, police ordered one gang member to leave Venice Beach for wearing his colors. He ignored officers' orders and then kicked one officer, Humphry said. The man was then arrested on charges of battery against a police officer.