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L.A. Requires Safety Measures at Cyber Cafes

Times Staff Writers

Worried that cyber cafes are turning into dens of truancy and breeding gang violence, Los Angeles City Council members Wednesday unanimously voted to regulate about 30 businesses where teens and others congregate to use computers.

Councilman Dennis Zine, who pushed the proposal, said he acted after a string of shootings at cyber cafes in the San Fernando Valley.

“We need to make sure people are safe,” he said.

The new regulations, which are expected to go into effect later this summer, require cafes with at least five computers to eliminate closed booths, install security cameras and bar minors during school hours to prevent truancy.

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The cafes must also apply for police permits, much like strip clubs and other adult businesses. Businesses that allow teenagers to play video games during school hours, smoke or gamble could lose their permits and be forced to shut down.

At Netopia, an Internet cafe in Northridge, Steve Cortina, 17, like other computer gamers interviewed Wednesday, said he didn’t like the idea of the rules. Adults are trying to discourage teenagers from ever going to cyber cafes out of a mistaken belief that they are dangerous, he said.

“If I can’t play here, I’d just play at home,” Cortina said. “It’s easier to play with my friends if we’re here.”

The new regulations mirror those drafted by other cities in recent years as officials have grappled with a new form of youth entertainment.

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Because of a series of attacks and slayings outside the roughly 30 cyber cafes in Garden Grove, the Orange County city now requires such establishments to log customers, have an adult and security guard present, limit business hours and videotape their premises.

Some of the businesses sued Garden Grove after the restrictions were issued in 2002. But a state appellate court ruled in February that the city had authority to “prevent serious acts of violence.”

Santa Ana and Diamond Bar have similar restrictions.

Although some officials said they would rather see children frolicking in the sun than frantically clicking mouses, Los Angeles council members said it was not their intention to drive cyber cafes out of business.

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Councilman Tom LaBonge compared the establishments to the pool halls frequented by teenagers in his youth and said he would rather see young people “on sports fields or in dancing academies.”

But he added that he knew teenagers liked to play video games.

“Cyber cafes are not inherently bad or troublesome,” said Councilman Greig Smith.

Still, many customers in cyber cafes around Los Angeles said they did not appreciate the new regulations.

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As half a dozen teenagers buried themselves in swivel chairs playing “Risk Your Life,” a popular role-playing game set in a feudal fantasy world, Netopia owner Hyuung Kim wondered whether the rules would harm his business.

In the last year, he has closed a cyber cafe in West Los Angeles and another in the Valley because of poor profits. He is clinging to hopes of a lucrative summer with children packing the place and paying $2.50 an hour to rent a screen.

While admitting that some students may be missing school to play, Kim said teenage customers were critical to the success of his business. “If the teenagers stop coming, then I think I better shut down,” he said.

Safety is not an issue at Netopia, Kim said. To the left in a strip mall on Devonshire Street is a “cop bar.” To the right is a Denny’s restaurant where officers often stop to get coffee. And he already has a surveillance camera installed.

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“There’s never been any problems here,” Kim said.

Elsewhere in Northridge, Robert Henderson, 36, took a cigarette break outside the NetStreet Internet Cafe, after an intense computer game session. The cafe caught the attention of officials when a melee last year left two teens injured.

“I think the City Council has the right intention in their heart,” Henderson said. “But I don’t think this is the right way to do it. Leave the minors alone; they’re not the ones causing the problems.”

Henderson, who plays about two hours of computer games a day at cyber cafes, says teenagers are a vital clientele, during school hours or not.

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“These places will go out of business without them,” he said.

Wesley Thompson, 14, wearing a headset and microphone to communicate with other players across the world from his terminal at Netopia, agreed. “Most people can’t afford computers that work this good,” he said.

Thompson said his summer would probably be spent in the establishment with friends: “At least we’re being social here instead of staying at home.”


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