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Heat at the Beach : Worried Venice Shopkeepers Seek Approval to Hire Off-Duty Police

March 25, 1993|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENICE — On perfect beach days, Venice shopkeeper Hwan Song worries about tornadoes.

"A group of kids dash into a store and throw the merchandise here and there--and then they take it," Song said. "A tornado."

Song, who heads a Korean merchants group, sells baseball caps, costume jewelry and bags near Muscle Beach. His business depends on the hordes who flock to one of Southern California's biggest tourist stops. He can't live without them, but at times he wonders how he can live with them.

The problem, as Song and other boardwalk merchants see it, is an acute shortage of police assigned to handle the beach crowds--150,000 or more on a good Sunday in the summer--and the crime that comes with them. Frustrated by budget-driven police shortages and jittery over a reported rise in gang activity, Venice beach storekeepers have come up with what they think is a solution to their problem: hiring their own police.

An areawide group representing beach businesses, called the Ocean Front Walk Assn., is lobbying Los Angeles officials for approval to hire five to 10 off-duty police officers to patrol the public boardwalk year-round.

The estimated 100 private vendors on the boardwalk acknowledge that there is no crime epidemic yet, but they fear future trouble if security is not beefed up now. Many complain that when it comes to police staffing, city officials neglect the beach, which activists say is more popular than ever since a surge of commercialism began in the 1970s.

"It really is the only tourist place you come to that you get there and really don't see the police," said Larry Gutin, a store owner and boardwalk activist. "We're just trying to keep the beach from becoming another Westwood."

Under the proposal, which has the backing of Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, the group would pay the $22.50-an-hour tab for the uniformed officers and cover insurance costs. The extra police would work under the command of the LAPD's beach detail, which during the height of the summer provides 25 officers.

The proposal would require the boardwalk's designation as a place where off-duty city police can work in uniform for a private group. State law allows private groups to hire uniformed police in officially designated public venues, such as the Coliseum, or for special events, such as movie filming sites or road races. Boardwalk activists say they might also simply seek to have Venice beach declared a nonstop special event.

Assistant City Atty. Byron Boeckman, who is studying the idea, said the proposal would need the approval of the police chief, Police Commission and perhaps the City Council. But he said that it is not clear whether such an arrangement would be legal.

The issue has gained urgency with an early bloom in the boardwalk's chaotic street-fair aura. The chain-saw juggler was out on Sunday, along with the hemp people and fortune-tellers. So too were the Rollerblading, bicycling, kite-flying masses from all over. Hot weather the previous weekend drew a beach crowd estimated at 200,000--a summer-sized turnout--with only five police officers on hand.

Merchants said a fight between members of rival gangs March 14 in the heart of the boardwalk prompted police to ask shopkeepers to close early. About a dozen members of a police gang detail were added last weekend and will be posted there over the next several weekends, said Capt. Russ Leach of the LAPD Pacific Division, which patrols the boardwalk.

Much of the current clamor for police stems from business owners' fears that the mix of rival gang members who visit from around the city might spark violent clashes. Leach said gang specialists first noticed a gang presence on the beach last summer--one teen-ager was killed by rivals near the police substation--and the weekend police force was beefed up with about 40 members of the LAPD's elite Metro Division.

"We have not had a gang problem in the past, but now, yes we do," Leach said, saying that problems have been largely limited to shoplifting and bullying. But he cautioned against overreacting: "They have a right to go anywhere they like. They have a right to enjoy Venice beach as well as they have a right to go to Disneyland."

Although Song blames the tornado blitzes on gangs, police say there is no proof that the incidents are gang-related.

"Yes, there are gang elements on the beach . . . but I can't attribute all these crimes to the gangs," Leach said. "Every young male, black or Hispanic, is not a gang member."

Even edgy merchants acknowledge that they cannot tell which youths belong to gangs and which do not, but they say they want to address the fear factor. And they insist that their initiative has more to do with the routine control of crowds that would fill two Coliseums--all scattered over a 1 1/2-mile stretch of beach.

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