Newport Beach turns to social media to keep July 4 safe

Newport Beach turns to social media to keep July 4 safe
Crowds are common in Newport Beach on the Fourth of July. Above, beachgoers near the Newport Pier in 2010. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

When it comes to keeping tabs on Fourth of July revelry in Newport Beach, police plan to patrol on horse, on bike and on foot.

They will also be online, looking for evidence of disorderly conduct before — and as — it starts. For the first time, the Newport Beach Police Department has enlisted a social media team to help preempt holiday rowdiness.


The unit will be composed of a few officers from Newport Beach and Anaheim, who will serve as an intelligence team, scanning social media for potential problems in real time.

"That seems to be, in the 21st century, how people communicate," Newport Beach Deputy Police Chief David McGill said. "We want to listen and look for problem spots that are developing."

Of primary concern is keeping unruly behavior at bay. The historic Balboa Peninsula once developed such a reputation for summertime rowdiness that locals termed the dense stretch of beach homes and apartments flanked by a bike path "the war zone."

But city and police officials have invested time and funding over the last five years to establish a perception that Newport Beach is a place for families on the Fourth of July, rather than a spot where anything goes, and locals have described calmer environs. They aren't keen on losing that momentum.

"We are doing pretty much everything we can do to, over time, evolve this into a different cultural event down here," City Councilman Mike Henn said.

The intervention is like the early 1990s effort in Palm Springs, when the desert community re-branded itself as a destination for the family set rather than the rowdy crowds that held court during spring break.

Beach cities in particular struggle with holiday crowds. Huntington Beach has pursued efforts to rein in its downtown area, particularly in the wake of the civil unrest following the U.S. Open of Surfing in late July, when spectators trashed downtown, tipping over portable toilets and smashing through a shop window with an uprooted stop sign. Surf City has also had plenty of trouble on the Fourth of July.

This year in Newport, each of the 141 sworn officers are expected to serve shifts. Some will patrol the city as usual, but many will focus on the upper peninsula, where a safety enhancement zone will be established.

The city also plans to spend $70,000 to $80,000 on outside help. There will be about 20 officers from various agencies mounted on horseback, 10 officers from the Irvine Police Department patrolling on bike and more than 20 California Highway Patrol officers keeping traffic moving and people out of the streets.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department will supply 30 personnel who will be on hand to help book anyone who is arrested.

The social media monitoring will be "one more arrow in the quiver," Henn said.

"Much better to have knowledge that a flash mob is forming and break it up before it forms," he said.

True, teenagers and young adults have been known to mill about on the upper peninsula for the Fourth of July, moving from house to house with a beer in hand, or perhaps lugging a case of beer

Some might ride down the boardwalk on motorized coolers filled with alcohol.


But police have learned that if they can keep the crowds from forming, there is less chance that they will get caught up in a group frenzy.

As such, officers now know where the party houses are. They will introduce themselves in the morning, informing anyone around of what will warrant a citation. Those who hold a rowdy house party, for example, could receive a $250 first-time fine under a relatively new city ordinance.

Officers have also built relationships with landlords, who know to tell their tenants of possible consequences, including on-the-spot evictions for certain violations.

"It helps us get a head start," McGill said. "We don't want to be reactive, we want to be proactive."

As the day goes on, citations will be given for open containers and urinating in public, fines that triple in the safety enhancement zone.

"It's going to cost you $300 to drink a beer in public," Lt. Evan Sailor said.

For the most part, the streets will remain open to traffic because closing them in previous years made for something of a playpen. A floodlight that once shone down won't be brought back.

Cameras installed on Balboa Boulevard will help officers keep watch. And they might get an unintentional assist from revelers, whose tweets and Facebook posts may not only direct their friends to the biggest party in town, but also the police.