LAGUNA BEACH : Lack of Curfew Raises Concerns

Following what police believe was a gang-related shooting at Heisler Park over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, some residents are voicing concern about living near the only beaches in Orange County without a curfew, Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr. said.

With other cities, including Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, deciding earlier this year to close their beaches at 10 p.m., some residents fear that troublemakers will gravitate to Laguna Beach, where much of the beachfront is open all night.

But Purcell believes it is too soon to come to such a conclusion.

"I think it's way too early to really try to make that comparison," he said. "Of course that shooting alarmed a lot of people."

Two teen-agers were wounded in the July 5 incident at a sandy area of Heisler Park, which is near Main Beach. No arrests have been made.

City Councilman Wayne L. Peterson said he will ask the city manager to explore what actions, short of beach curfews, could be taken to help keep Laguna Beach residents safe.

"I hope it's not going to become a big issue, but I think it could and it's kind of scary," Peterson said. "You can't have the only house on the block without doors. Every other house on the block has a door, and they're all locked."

But Peterson and Purcell both say it would be premature to change the current city policy.

"I'm of the opinion we should take a wait-and-see approach and allow some time to monitor," Purcell said. "I have some strong feelings . . . that with the enactment of a lot of ordinances and laws we're becoming hostages or prisoners of our own areas and we don't get to enjoy these beautiful beaches and coves because of the actions of a few."

Some residents, however, believe it would be wiser not to wait, said Purcell, who fielded calls from worried residents after the shooting.

"It's something that is mounting a lot of concern among some of our residents, especially those who live along the beachfront or adjacent to Heisler Park," he said. "Some feel strongly that, 'Why wait and see if there is an increase? Let's act now."'

Enforcing curfews along much of Laguna Beach's coastline would be difficult, Purcell said, because police have to "walk down a flight of stars, crawl over rocks and look in caves and really go to extremes to check out the beaches."

Patrols were stepped up in anticipation of possible problems over the recent holiday, Purcell said. Gang members, who were not causing problems, were spotted on Main Beach and Heisler Park, he said.

Over the three-day period, police arrested 41 people, mostly on such charges as as drunk driving and possession of marijuana, Purcell said. One person was arrested on an assault charge.

"It was the usual thing," he said. "We were very, very busy. But, with the exception of that one serious incident that marred our weekend, it was almost a rubber stamp of last year."

The last serious outburst of violence on a beach in Laguna occurred in January when a middle-aged man was severely beaten because he was thought to be gay, Purcell said.

In May, 1992, a 19-year-old Ontario man was shot and killed near Aliso Beach in South Laguna after a fracas about 9:30 p.m. involving water balloons. That beach, operated by the county, has a 10 p.m. curfew.

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