HUNTINGTON BEACH — After years of failed attempts to keep a lid on riotous partyers without exerting an overly aggressive police presence, law enforcement seemed to strike a balance this Independence Day, keeping the peace here while making one-fifth the number of last year's arrests.
Some of the rowdier drinkers, however, might have heeded the message of years past by going to Newport Beach, where arrests climbed as police grappled with larger crowds.
By 2:30 a.m. Saturday, Huntington Beach police had arrested 109 people in their customary Fourth of July crackdown, far fewer than the 549 people hauled to jail last year, Lt. Luis Ochoa said.
Police combed the city in force armed with a controversial new city ordinance allowing them to arrest people for drinking alcohol on unenclosed private property in the downtown area. The holiday weekend ordinance sent some residents scurrying to build fences around their frontyards.
But this year, officers opted for a more humble approach, shedding their riot gear and issuing warnings to residents who were drinking alcoholic beverages on their lawns. Officers first asked drinkers to move their parties inside. Most cooperated. Only those who continued to break the law were arrested, Ochoa said.
"We wanted to have people cooperate with us as much as possible," Ochoa said. "The fact that there were a lot less people and a lot less troublemakers allowed us to be more flexible."
Of the total arrests, 73 were alcohol-related, and only 15 involved the new ordinance, he said.
"There were cops everywhere, but they really were nice," said Jeff Newman, 40, who lives a few blocks from Huntington Beach Pier. Last year, "they were too nuts. They came in and terrorized."
In years past, rowdy street parties, revelers pelting police with bottles and rocks, and drunken mobs who set sofas ablaze became troubling holiday rituals in Huntington Beach.
Efforts to stem problems before they blossom into riots have included the use of batons and fire hoses and a plea for downtown businesses to close early. Last year, city officials opted for a heavy-handed zero-tolerance approach that landed more than 500 people in jail, many of them before they had a chance to light up their barbecues.
About half of those arrested last year were detained under a still-effective ordinance that bans drinking in public. Police liberally applied the ordinance to folks who were drinking on their own front porches or lawns.
But a Municipal Court judge late last year deemed the city's use of the ordinance unconstitutional, and this year's new ordinance was the city's answer to those legal concerns.
Despite the peaceful holiday, the ordinance still irked some residents.
Unlike some of her neighbors, Shauna Freeman, 26, refused to spring for temporary fencing so her guests could legally drink on the porch of her small, well-kept home on Main Street. Instead, she tried to keep her guests inside and in the backyard. Although some did stray to the frontyard with drinks in hand, none were cited.
Huntington Beach Mayor Ralph H. Bauer applauded the balancing act, saying it heralded a new era of Independence Day peace in the seaside community.
"The police behaved with a fair amount of restraint and for the most part people who were apparently a little out of line had a warning, and people had a chance to respond positively to that and evidently they did," Bauer said. "I talked to some residents in the area and they were superbly happy."
Rather than couches aflame, Bauer said, this year's holiday was marked by families munching fried chicken while they watched a city fireworks display, and strolling pedestrians licking ice cream cones.
"It's a lot of trouble to arrest people and book them," Bauer said. "We don't want to do that inappropriately. We just had to get some control over the situation."
The key to this year's quiet, however, was a general reduction in the number of problem partyers, Ochoa said. While he did not have an estimate of how much smaller the crowds were, he said that "there were a whole lot fewer troublemakers."
That might be good for the peace, but some said it was also bad for business.
The police presence might have dissuaded a lot of drinkers from even showing up, and instead sent them down the coast for holiday pickling, some said.
"Newport's getting our business," said Josh Scriven, 23, who tends bar at Taxi's, a Main Street hangout. The streets were deserted when his shift ended early Saturday, Scriven said.
While the police were friendly this year, he said the atmosphere was a little too high on authority and low on fun for his taste.
Huntington Beach appeared tidy and well-scrubbed Saturday morning. But down the coast, near Newport's Seashore Drive, hung-over party hosts were hosing macaroni salad and beer-soaked hot dog buns off their patios.
The streets were packed with revelers Friday night, said residents, who also applauded local police for acting reasonably.