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Melee Prompts Call for Restrictions on Cyber Cafes

L.A. councilman urges security measures at the venues after two teens are hurt in the Valley.

January 01, 2003|Richard Fausset and Karima A. Haynes | Times Staff Writers

As police searched for suspects in a melee and gunfight that left two teenagers injured outside an Internet cafe in Northridge, Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine on Tuesday called for new regulations on coffee shops specializing in realistic and often violent online video games.

According to police, one teenage boy was shot in the leg and another was hit over the head with a chair during a fight with six other boys outside the NetStreet Internet Cafe about 8 p.m. Monday. The cafe had been hosting a $300 prize tournament for "Counter-Strike," a computer shoot-'em-up game.

Police said the argument had nothing to do with the tournament. But Zine said it was time for the city to prevent the real-world violence that some of the so-called cyber cafes have been attracting.

"We have restrictions on alcohol and cigarettes sales to young people," Zine said. "And here we have young people gathering inside a venue, playing violent video games, with no provisions for their security."

Charles Lee, 41-year-old co-owner of NetStreet, said he supports looking into new regulations but is concerned that the cyber cafes are being unfairly singled out.

"What about the liquor store, or the corner laundry or the park?" he asked. "If kids got hurt at the public park, are you going to close it down?"

Game-oriented cyber cafes, also known as PC bangs, allow video game aficionados to test their skills against online opponents using blazing-fast technology they might not have at home.

As the cafes' popularity has grown throughout Southern California, a number of cities have become increasingly concerned about policing of the popular teenage hangouts.

In Orange County, two young people were killed in the last 13 months in incidents linked to cyber cafes. Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Diamond Bar have approved special security rules for the businesses. Los Angeles has no such restrictions, though Zine noted that the Police Commission has regulated old-school video arcades for years.

Zine said he raised the issue of regulating Internet cafes in July but was told by LAPD officials that the cafes were not a problem.

He voiced his concerns after Steve Nguyen, 19, was fatally shot in the driveway of his Winnetka home after returning from the NetStreet cafe.

Police believe Nguyen may have been followed home from the cafe, but Lee said the teenager left alone. He said he doesn't believe the incident is tied in any way to his business.

While Zine did not give any specific ideas for regulations, he said they could include mandatory security guards, limits on hours for teenagers and stricter enforcement of loitering laws.

Regulating the nascent industry has created problems in Garden Grove, where police have been called to the city's two dozen cyber cafes nearly 300 times since June. Officials there had to loosen new rules in November when cafe owners threatened the city with a lawsuit. The city eased up on a teenage curfew and restrictions on operating hours and eliminated a rule requiring owners to keep a list of visitors. But it still requires security guards at the cafes during evening hours.

Zine said he was looking for "reasonable" restrictions for Los Angeles. "I don't want to put this industry out of business," he said. "I want to help them create a safe environment."

Lee said his year-old business already has a number of security measures. All customers must be registered members, with their names and addresses on file. Security cameras are mounted on the walls and minors are prohibited from using computers during school hours or after 10 p.m. The only incident at the cafe has been a fistfight that was quickly broken up by Lee's partner, he said.

But some business owners who share space with NetStreet in the busy, dun-colored strip mall said they are fed up with the tough-looking kids who hang out outside the cafe. On Tuesday morning, the cafe storefront was posted with makeshift signs that read "Move Out Now!" and "Get Out of Our Lives."

"That place is an excuse to collect [bad] people who do what they want to do," said Isaac Asiaban, owner of the liquor store next door.

On Monday night, Asiaban said he heard a chair crash to the ground, then saw one group of boys chasing another across the parking lot with guns blazing.

"It was like a western movie," he said.

Both victims, whose names were not released, were taken to a local hospital, and are expected to survive, said Lt. Tim Moss of the LAPD's Devonshire Division. Moss said the attacks could be gang-related. The case is being investigated by the department's Asian Crime Investigation Section. Both the suspects and the victims are of Asian descent, Moss said.

A few business owners and a number of neighborhood kids vouched for NetStreet's owners, saying they were innocent victims of a few bad patrons.

"They don't promote violence," a 22-year old cafe regular said. "They want everybody to be happy and just play games."

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