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Huntington Police Readying a Show of Force for Partyers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is the Huntington Beach recipe for preventing trouble on the Fourth of July:

Put lots of police officers on the street, pay them $100,000 in overtime. Arrest hundreds who drink in public or disturb the peace.

This zero-tolerance formula to eradicate public drinking is effective.

“Hooligans who get drunk and act like idiots,” said Police Chief Ronald E. Lowenberg, “go to jail.”

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After two years of virtual martial law and 660 arrests, the memorably riotous Independence Day melees in Surf City, marked by bonfires, vandalism and sporadic violence, show signs of fading into folklore.

Only 111 people were arrested last year, down from 549 in 1996. The burning of couches, police taunting and drunkenness that occurred in 1995, and off and on in years prior, may be over.

“The message got out,” said Capt. Charles H. Poe. “People don’t want to come down here and go to jail.”

Of course, it helped to reinforce that theme with hundreds of officers, and paddy wagons, from Huntington Beach, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol.

It helped even more to have a special, if highly controversial, city ordinance banning drinking on private property, except, said Lt. Anthony J. Sollecito, “under special circumstances.”

And those circumstances were confusing. For example, you could imbibe only behind a three-foot fence, hedge or otherwise enclosed yard. You could drink on a balcony, but not in a garage. As a city councilman noted last year, Huntington Beach made it illegal on a hot day to be “just mowing the yard . . . and drinking a beer.”

But the sun set on that ordinance, and police are confident that the public, now tamed and chastened by tough tactics, will behave.

Only nine people were actually hauled away under that ordinance last year, said Lt. Jon Arnold.

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Municipal Judge Caryl Lee called the ordinance unconstitutional and threw out the charges for four people, saying it was too vague to be understood.

Even without that ordinance, it’s still illegal to drink on public property, to be drunk in public or to disturb the peace in Huntington Beach, and that’s enough law to keep this year’s party peaceful, police believe.

“Just because we don’t have the ordinance, it doesn’t mean anyone’s declared ‘King’s X’ on drinking in public,” Poe said.

Just in case, Huntington Beach police will turn out every able body in the department on Saturday to keep a sober border around the revelry.

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To prepare for the weekend, police began beefing up enforcement Saturday by setting up a DUI checkpoint on Main Street, Lt. Gary Brooks said.

“Their main focus was drunk driving, but certainly, if there was other kinds of enforcement to be done, we were there,” Brooks said.

Officers stopped 138 vehicles Saturday, Brooks said, some in which the driver was suspected of being intoxicated, others with equipment violations. Broken headlights, failure to use seat belts, lack of a front license plate and broken car windows all warranted being stopped.

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The focus will be even more intense this weekend.

“July 4th is a different ball of wax in Huntington Beach,” traffic Sgt. Craig Bryant said. “There will be a major police presence in the downtown area, there will be some street closures, and similar to last year, there will be mobile tactical teams in the area. We will be prepared to respond.”

That means police once again will be as ubiquitous as bottle rockets at the fireworks show, which starts at 7:30 p.m. at Huntington Beach High School.

Downtown streets will be closed at 1 p.m. from Pacific Coast Highway to Palm Avenue, and from Main Street to Golden West Street, and 40 intersections will be barricaded.

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To get in or out, by car or bicycle, residents will have to show identification with their address on it. Barricades will remain up from 1 p.m. Saturday until 2 a.m. Sunday.

But PCH and the 100 block of Main Street and the city parking garage will remain open all night, and the annual Street Fair again will operate from 1 to 7 p.m.

As always, the pier will close at 8 p.m., the enforced youth curfew is 10 p.m., and a “tactical deployment” force of 242 officers will be on patrol.

Backed by city residents and downtown merchants who, Lowenberg said, told him “enough is enough,” police have resorted to the serious show of force to halt the lawlessness that used to erupt when an abundance of youthful party-goers combined with ample amounts of alcohol.

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The result was often a late-night frenzy, with mostly young rioters running through neighborhoods setting trash containers afire and hurling rocks and firecrackers at pursuing officers.

In 1994, an officer struck Allison Jill Gonsowski, then a 17-year-old Edison High School student, in the face with a baton, breaking her jaw and loosening five teeth.

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She and nine others complained of brutality to the FBI, which investigated. But Gonsowski was unable to identify the officer because the incident “happened in a split second,” she said at the time. The Huntington Beach City Council eventually paid $125,000 to settle her lawsuit.

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Police and merchants dread the thought of another outright free-for-all, Lowenberg said.

“We just want to get to the point where, hopefully, the Fourth of July is just another holiday,” the chief said, “and we can spend it with our families too.”

Times staff writer Valerie Burgher contributed to this report.


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