Police Too Tough, Some Merchants Say : Softened Jingle of Change Spells Sad Song in Springs

Times Staff Writer

There are growing signs of backlash here against the spring break law enforcement crackdown designed to discourage rowdyism among young people.

The widely publicized enforcement effort has prevented an outbreak of violence similar to the one that erupted last year, but interviews with about a dozen hotel and restaurant managers, shopkeepers and even one member of a community task force that inspired the policy, turned up serious reservations.

They said that while they support stronger law enforcement, they did not envision the issuance of thousands of citations for stepping off a sidewalk or having tinted windows on automobiles.

Business owners in this resort community say they don't want to see young people riot in the streets, but they also don't want them--or their parents--to take their money and go home. Tourist dollars are especially needed, merchants say, since fear of a repeat of last year's Easter weekend riot has kept much of their bread-and-butter clientele away in droves.

"I think they (police authorities) meant well, but now they are scaring away adults and kids by using a cannon to shoot a sparrow," said Fred Stadler, manager of Maxim's, a swank 194-suite hotel in the heart of downtown. "Sure, it's controlled out there, but it's a police state, and the result is, my hotel is half empty."

But Palm Springs Police Chief Thomas Kendra defended his tough policy at a press briefing Wednesday morning.

"We are responding to the community's concerns (of) last year," Kendra said, referring to the bottle-throwing melee that erupted on Good Friday last year and cost the city $100,000 in overtime salaries for peace officers and $40,000 in property damage.

"The Police Department was criticized then for not taking action or enforcing the laws," Kendra said. "We are doing exactly what the city wanted us to do. . . . I expected there would not be unanimous agreement on the approach."

Besides, he added, "I think it is working well--things are quiet downtown."

Many Are Arrested

From 7 a.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Wednesday, officers issued more than 2,700 traffic citations, arrested 291 people and picked up 249 young men and women for curfew violations, said Fred Donnell, spokesman for the Palm Springs Police Department. Most of the arrests were for drunkenness in public, but citations ranged from drunk driving to jaywalking.

The rash of ticket writing is expected to generate revenue that city officials hope will help offset the $260,000 price tag for the high-profile, no-nonsense law enforcement action plan.

Kendra announced his tough policy after consulting with a special community task force organized by the City Council. But one task force member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "the laws I wanted enforced were for people throwing things, drunkenness, things like that, not for stuff like missing a reflector on a bicycle or stepping off the curb."

David Gold, president of the local merchants association and owner of a men's clothing store, agreed.

"Last year, they were unprepared, and this year, they are over-prepared," Gold said. "We don't want to scare away adults who pay our rent."

Some Are Big Spenders

"A lot of these kids come down with their parents and those parents spend a lot of money," said Tammy Helmeth, manager of Gucci's, the swank boutique on Palm Canyon Drive. "They don't want to be bothered by possible harassment from police."

A merchants' representative who asked not to be identified said Mayor Frank Bogert has been told of such concerns. But Kendra insisted Wednesday that he has not received a single complaint from business owners, and Bogert said merchants who were complaining about heavy-handed police enforcement are misinformed.

He said their financial woes stem more from the fact that colleges scheduled their spring breaks at various times this year, rather than all at the same time.

Moreover, not all merchants are unhappy. For proprietors of fast-food restaurants that attract large nighttime crowds of young people, the high police profile is insurance that small disagreements won't flare into brawls.

"Would you rather have your child with stitches in his head or getting a $50 fine?" asked Phil Masters, 54, owner of Mama Lucci's Pizza, which is located near where some of last year's violence occurred.

The police crackdown, Masters said, has "prevented a lot of problems."

But some Palm Springs residents have been caught up in the confrontations with police.

Couple's Complaint

A young local couple complained that they received rough treatment when they were detained Monday night during a brawl outside a nightclub.

Bill and Lynette La Scala said in an interview that they were pushing a stroller with their baby on the street outside the nightclub when they were grabbed by law enforcement officers who had been summoned by reports of a fight in the bar and parking lot.

A portion of Bill La Scala's arrest was witnessed by this reporter. At one point, the baby stroller was left unattended as Bill La Scala was being handcuffed, and his wife was grabbed around the neck from behind as she protested the treatment of her husband. While the mother was led off to a police wagon, a friend out walking with them grabbed the infant in its stroller.

"It is the worst nightmare I have ever had in my life," said Lynette La Scala, 25, who was not charged. Bill La Scala, 27, was booked on suspicion of being drunk in public.

Police refused to comment on the incident.

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