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Alcohol, Rowdiness Plague Mission Beach Popularity

Times Staff Writer

On a warm summer day at Mission Beach, the boardwalk that extends north to Pacific Beach brims with people who typify the San Diego beach scene: lean, blonde joggers; teen-age surfers; scantily clad roller-skaters, and--increasingly--loud, obnoxious drunks.

For decades, the boardwalk’s sea wall has been a hub for beach bums, sailors and surfers who gather to enjoy the sunshine, drink beer and comment on the tanned bodies passing by. But to many who live, work and patrol the beach areas, the “lowlifes” who populate the sea wall have given the boardwalk a reputation for drunkenness and rowdiness that is attracting more unruly visitors and keeping families away.

“The seaboard is not very attractive to families,” said Sgt. Mike Gibbs, leader of the San Diego Police Department’s beach patrol. “I talk to parents who go down there, and they’re aghast at the conduct they see. It’s very frightening to them.”

What frightens potential beachgoers and enrages some local merchants is the increasing incidence of fighting, public urination and verbal harassment of women walking along the boardwalk.

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“A young lady in a bathing suit can’t walk down the boardwalk without being harassed by drunks,” said Brian Wagner, owner of Shore Realty, on the corner of Mission Boulevard and Pacific Beach Drive. He added that the conduct of those around the sea wall is hurting his business.

“I’ve actually had (prospective renters) come down who said they were appalled by the rude and obnoxious behavior they saw,” Wagner said. “They were turned off on the area and they’re not coming back.”

Although residents and authorities disagree as to whether those responsible are primarily locals or visitors, they agree on the problem’s underlying cause.

“Alcohol is a very rough problem here,” said Dan Hamel, who for 19 years has operated Hamel’s Action Sports Center at Ventura Place and Ocean Front Walk in Mission Beach. “We’ve got the ocean on one side, the bay on the other side and a battle zone in between,” he said.

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Over the last two years, the San Diego Police Department has greatly increased its arsenal in the battle against rowdyism in the beach area. On the Memorial Day weekend, the official beginning of the summer beach season, the department hit the beach on bicycles, horseback and all-terrain vehicles.

Although crime statistics for the weekend have not been compiled, Gibbs said that Memorial Day was “normal.”

“And normal is just terrible,” he said.

Last summer, the beach unit made 133 felony arrests and issued 8,996 misdemeanor citations. The most common misdemeanors issued on the beach were possession of a glass container, possession of marijuana and possession of alcohol by a minor, said Capt. Dave Hall of the Police Department’s northern division. Most of the felony arrests were for serious drug violations and assault, he said.

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However, these statistics do not reflect many of the fights that break out on the beach, according to Officer John Alger of the beach unit.

“We get a lot of mutual combat here where both guys are drunk and neither one ends up pressing charges,” Alger said.

With the exception of some isolated gang fights, violence at the beach almost always involves alcohol, Gibbs said.

“It usually starts about 3:30 in the afternoon,” he said. “It’s predictable. After the sun has come out and people have been drinking for a few hours, then the fights start. There are a number of things at the beach that are destined to cause conflict: Frisbees, those little Hacky Sack things people kick around, people on bicycles or roller-skates running into someone. Just add alcohol and you have a fight.”

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Although there has been a large migration of transients from the downtown area to the beach since construction began at Horton Plaza, Gibbs said fights at the beach are most often instigated by unemployed locals who spend their days drinking at the beach.

“We do have transients, but they’re not our problem children,” he said. The trouble-makers “are locals, though you could call them transients because they don’t have a job or a permanent residence. But they’ve been here for years. I guess you could call them ‘local transients.’ ”

Disturbances are most common on weekends, when beachgoers from inland areas or nearby military bases come into conflict with locals, after both have been drinking, Gibbs said.

“Usually you have the sailors who go down on the weekends,” he said. “They get drunk, then they get macho, then they get in fights.”

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So far, proposed solutions to the problem of unruly behavior at the beach have been centered on increasing police presence and expanding the law-enforcement duties of lifeguards by arming them with night sticks or chemical Mace. However, many in the beach area say the source of the problem must be attacked.

“The first thing I’d do is outlaw booze in and around the beach,” said lifeguard Phil Stone, who has worked at Mission Beach for 10 years. “A family can’t come out here and feel safe. No one wants to bring their family down here because there’s so many drunks around.”

Hamel, a former president of the Mission Beach Property Owners Assn., agrees.

“I think it’s a shame that some people are going to have to give up drinking a beer on the sea wall, but 70% to 80% of the problems we have are alcohol-related,” he said. “Let’s free up the police. Let’s free up the lifeguards. We don’t need horses. We don’t need ATCs. We don’t need more patrols. We just need to control this alcohol problem.”

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Alcohol is prohibited at Carlsbad State Beach, but permitted at Moonlight and Torrey Pines state beaches. Mike Silvestri, who supervises lifeguard operations at all three beaches, said the presence of alcohol makes a big difference.

“Definitely, alcohol is one of our worse problems,” Silvestri said. “Almost all of our big fights and most of our drownings are alcohol-related.”

All of the police officers interviewed said that an alcohol ban could be enforced and that it would significantly reduce disturbances at the beach.

“Sure, it could be enforced. It’s just a matter of educating people,” said Officer Ralph Garcia. “Most of the people who are drunk at the beach aren’t drunk when they get here. They come down here with a six-pack and by the time the day’s half gone, so are they.”

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But Councilman Mike Gotch, whose district includes the beach area, said he is dead set against any restriction of alcohol use.

“I don’t think that another law to restrict people’s rights is any solution to what is a much bigger problem,” Gotch said. “Just because a bunch of yahoos want to get out of control is no reason to prohibit it for a citizen who just wants to go to the beach on a hot day and pop open a beer.”

Gotch said the problem of drunkenness and rowdyism at the beach is “decreasing, not increasing,” and that any rise in complaints from citizens and merchants is due to their diminished tolerance of such behavior.

“I just think people’s patience is wearing thin,” Gotch said. “Those people (in the beach area) put up with more transients, trash and traffic than any other part of the city.”

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The key to continued reduction of the problems of the beach area, Gotch said, is encouraging “upscale, resident-serving” commercial development and “upgrading the retail mix” of existing businesses. He said that because of such development, “a renaissance is taking place” around the old Belmont Park roller coaster and Hamel’s, currently one of the biggest problem areas for rowdyism.

“There’s going to be some big changes in the south end once all the lowlifes are cleared out,” Gotch said.

This undesirable element will move away from the beach as the area is improved by increased community pride and business development, Gotch said.

“The folks who cause the most trouble are going to go somewhere else,” he said. “They’re not going to be driven to the county line, but they’ll feel less comfortable in an area oriented toward families. They only feel comfortable around graffiti and trash and drugs.”

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Hamel, however, does not believe commercial development is the answer.

“We don’t need to add a shopping center until we have already addressed and solved our other problems,” he said.

Gotch remains confident that the boardwalk will again be “safe 24 hours a day.”

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but the beach is a significantly different place than it was five or 10 years ago,” he said.

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Capt. Hall said making the beach area “family-oriented” continues to be a prominent, though distant, goal for the Police Department.

“John Q. Public going to the beach with his wife and kids with a beach ball and a little (soda) pop is going to feel uncomfortable in some areas of the beach, and we want to change that,” Hall said. “I want for everybody who uses the beach to have the freedom to have a good time without being bothered. I don’t think I’ll ever see it--but I’ll keep trying.”


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