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Double Trouble : Lifeguards on the Lookout for Crime on Land


COASTAL — Like most lifeguards who patrol L.A.'s world-renowned beaches, Garth Canning has placed himself in harm's way without ever getting wet.

A few years ago, he tried to order a drunken vagrant off Santa Monica Beach. The man responded by attacking him with a 48-ounce beer bottle.

"You look at urban society and what urban living does to you, and it happens here too," Canning said.

This summer is no different.

A nighttime murder last month at Santa Monica Beach and two gang-related closures of Venice Beach this season have cast a spotlight on L.A.'s hallowed strips of sand--and on the changing role of the lifeguards who patrol them.

"The days when a lifeguard could come to the beach, open up his towel and lifeguard are gone," said Don Rohrer, chief lifeguard for Los Angeles County.

No longer stoic sentries gazing serenely out to sea, lifeguards--as synonymous with California Cool as skateboards--find their focus increasingly diverted to dry land as urban crime finds its way onto the beach.

"The stress level is a lot higher than people might think," Lifeguard Capt. Russ Walker said.

In deference to changing times, lifeguards are now trained in self-defense and possess quasi-peace officer status. They also receive regular training from Sheriff's Department gang experts to spot gang colors, graffiti and clothing. All lifeguards with a rank of lieutenant or higher are issued handcuffs, a policy now in its second year.

According to county statistics for the area between Malibu's Las Tunas Beach and Marina del Rey, lifeguards participated in an average of 91,446 ordinance enforcement actions in each of the past five years.

Additionally, lifeguards assisted other agencies, including police, an average of 1,243 times a year during the same time period.

The annual tallies, though influenced by weather and attendance, have generally inched upward as ever more Angelenos turn to the beaches for affordable recreation. "It's always been there," Walker said of law enforcement work. "It's just that we're doing more of it."

But numbers alone don't tell the whole story. Not quantifiable--but all-too-real to lifeguards--is the sense of growing disrespect for authority figures, including those familiar figures in red swimsuits.

"People don't want to be told what to do," said Santa Monica lifeguard Lt. Nick Steers, in his 29th summer as a lifeguard.

But county lifeguards stress that their top priority continues to be scanning the water for distressed swimmers. They made 12,000 rescues last year, prevented countless other bathers from getting into trouble and logged only two drownings among an estimated 60 million visitors.

Unwilling to forsake their traditional good-guy image, they tend to downplay their law enforcement responsibilities, proudly insisting that the beach remains one of the safest places in the county, at least during the day.

"When you're talking about thousands and thousands of people who visit our beaches, the percentages of you having a perfect day are in your favor," Steers said.

Negative news reports about local beaches, Steers added, never "emphasize the 300,000 people who went home fine."

Yet as the first line of authority on a packed beach, lifeguards often run up against urban problems, as they did at Venice Beach two months ago when a jogger encountered a man firing a handgun over the water.

The jogger told a lifeguard, and within moments several plainclothes guards scrambled toward the gunman, trying unsuccessfully to get close enough to calm him down.

Meanwhile, other lifeguards surveying the scene from their headquarters tower informed police via radio of the man's precise whereabouts as he fired and reloaded. Police eventually cornered the suspect, who fatally shot himself as police drew their guns on him.

Through countless less dramatic acts--from patching boats to responding to roller-blading accidents--lifeguards lend a sense of stability to the 31 miles of county beaches. They break up fights, help locate missing kids and routinely dispense first aid, often to homeless people who have no other source of medical care.

Police have learned to depend on lifeguards as extra sets of eyes and ears. "Those guys work their tail off," said Sgt. Rick Wall of the LAPD's Venice Beach detail. "I'd hate to think what we'd have to do without them."

Yet cutbacks to the lifeguard crew remain a real possibility. The recently adopted county budget eliminates the equivalent of 22 of 110 full-time guard positions and ends 24-hour service at the Lifeguard Headquarters at Zuma, Santa Monica and Hermosa beaches.

More than 600 part-time positions will not be directly affected.

The cuts may be avoided if seaside municipalities--namely Santa Monica, Malibu, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa beach, Redondo Beach and Avalon--agree to make up a $1.7-million shortfall. Negotiations between those cities and the Department of Beaches and Harbors are under way.

"It's not over until it's over," Rohrer said of the budget process.

Whatever the outcome, no one expects L.A. beaches to get any quieter.

Robert Buchanan, public information and training officer for the guards, described the beaches as an area the size of the city of Manhattan Beach crawling with a transient population of 500,000.

Even if only a tiny percentage of those people are troublemakers, that's still works out to a lot of troublemakers.

"You just don't know who might show up," he said.

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