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Newport Beach Moves to Head Off Gang Problems : Crime: Affluent community's rates of graffiti and teen violence are 'minuscule' compared to other areas, but city has shaped aggressive strategy. Some residents say police overreact.

April 29, 1993|JODI WILGOREN and BOB ELSTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEWPORT BEACH — The flyer found in a Pomona high school advertising "Beach Bash '93" at first blush appeared to be an innocuous party invitation.

But authorities determined that the postscript "B.Y.O.S." splashed across the bottom instructed would-be revelers to bring their own spray-paint. The party--sponsored by the viKING$, a tagging crew well-known to local police, had a fashionable address: the Newport Beach pier.

As graffiti vandalism and other gang-related crimes continue to plague urban areas of Southern California, even affluent suburban communities such as Newport Beach are not immune, city officials say. Although only 12 of the 15,000 gang members whom police have identified as living in Orange County reside in Newport Beach, this coastal city is still a destination for thousands of tourists--including gang members--who flock to its beaches.

"Gangs from all over Southern California come to the beach, meet and do whatever they want to do," said Sgt. Mike McDermott, who heads the city's gang detail. "We get kind of the backwash down here."

City leaders admit that their gang troubles pale in comparison to their fiscal woes--not to mention recent sex and embezzlement scandals--and that the real gang problem lies in other parts of the county.

But they say they refuse to wait for the problem to worsen.

This year police began to track gang-related crimes, and the City Council is weighing an anti-graffiti ordinance along with the idea of erecting gates to keep outsiders out of certain neighborhoods at night. A city gang task force has recently been formed.

"Our problem, compared to Santa Ana or Westminster or Stanton, it's minuscule," acting Police Chief Jim Jacobs said of gangs. "We want to keep it that way."

Some residents, though, say the city is not so much reacting to the community's fear of gangs as creating it.

"I have read about the . . . gangs coming into here, but as for problems, I haven't seen it," said Kenny Clark, 30, who lives a few blocks from the beach. "During summer things get pretty wild, but it's mostly just kids partying."

"They don't want kids driving away the tourists," added Erin Kelly, a UC Irvine student whose beachfront apartment overlooks Newport Pier. "I think it's the Newport Beach image thing."

Last month, Newport Beach officers--who routinely question youths whose clothes fit a gang profile--stopped 58 people who were later identified as gang members through a countywide computer network. There were 13 gang-related crimes, including a car burglary, two auto thefts, eight graffiti or vandalism incidents and two cases of alcohol-related offenses--but no violent crimes.

In addition, six known gang members were arrested in Newport Beach in March, two on warrants and four for providing false information to police.

And, tipped off by the Pomona police to the viKING$ "Beach Bash," Newport Beach officers intercepted about seven carloads of teen-agers headed to the beach, apparently for a graffiti fest, McDermott said.

"Ditch days" and tagging parties, such as those advertised in the Pomona flyer, are common problems on the beach, he said. Officers routinely find carloads of teen-agers in beach parking lots on school days and the city's two piers, and the rocks at Corona del Mar State Beach are defaced by graffiti most weekends. "It's definitely not anything that's out of hand, it's just that it affects the quality of life," added McDermott, a 13-year veteran with the force.

Although many cities experience daily doses of violence, discussions of gang activity in Newport Beach inevitably hark back to a few isolated incidents. There were 42 gang-related homicides in Orange County in 1992; the last such killing in Newport Beach happened four years ago.

More recently, racial tangles have erupted at city schools.

Several students suspected of belonging to a white supremacist group were expelled from Corona del Mar High School in January after a confrontation with some African-American students from Tustin during a basketball game. Last November, a fight between Anglos and Latinos at Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach ended with a pencil-stabbing. Police believe it was gang-related.

"All you have to do is pick up the newspaper, watch television or observe some of the events happening on our streets and in our schools, in our county and state to know this isn't a localized problem," said Tom Jacobson, principal at Corona del Mar High.

Councilman John Hedges said, "It's not something that we have to live in fear and trembling of, but I do think we have to be realistic and confront what could be a problem in the future." Hedges spearheaded a gang task force that will study other cities' law enforcement and educational efforts to curb gang activity.

City, school and police officials say residents' concerns have sparked their anti-gang movement, but those living near the beach say that they have witnessed little or no gang activity and that, in some cases, police overreact.

"The police are everywhere," said Nancy McBride, manager of a restaurant on the Balboa Peninsula. "There is more concern (about gangs) than there should be."

"The cops are all around," said Charlie Blankenheim, one of Kelly's five roommates. "I saw six cops giving a kid who was about 12 years old a ticket for skateboarding. . . . They had the poor guy surrounded."

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