Some readers haven’t been pleased that I’ve expressed reservations about Newport Beach’s new Loud and Unruly Gathering ordinance.
The law, which went into effect July 1, gives police the ability to impose hefty fines on guests, renters and property owners when gatherings create excessive noise and other disturbances.
My concern centered largely on the potential for authorities to become overzealous in enforcing the new law, and for individuals engaged in relatively innocuous activities to become ensnared.
As Thomas Paine wrote, “An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret and to misapply even the best of laws.”
Paine obviously didn’t have beer pong in mind when he wrote the hallowed words that so greatly influenced our Founding Fathers. But in attempting to sanction certain undesirable behavior, we must always take care that such measures aren’t used as a pretext for other, less benign motives.
Nonetheless, when a few readers angrily responded that I could not possibly understand what it’s like to live on Balboa Peninsula, where many residents have long been plagued by the drunken, late-night antics of bar hoppers and partygoers, I had to admit: They have a point.
So in the interest of open-mindedness, I asked the Newport Beach police if I could tag along as they made their rounds in some of the problem areas.
Sgt. Eric Peterson, a 10-year veteran of the Newport police, graciously agreed to the ride-along. Late on a recent Saturday night, I left police headquarters with Peterson as he attempted to show me how the department handles the city’s party scene.
Peterson is a savvy, levelheaded cop with law enforcement in his genes. His father, brother and uncle are current or former members of the Chicago police force. But he wanted something different, so in 1995 he began working for the Los Angeles Police Department, where he was assigned to gang and narcotics units.
After years of working L.A.'s mean streets, Peterson wanted something slower paced and more community-oriented, and he landed in Newport. He received his sergeant’s badge last year.
Peterson’s patient and even-keeled approach went a long way toward quelling my trepidations over enforcement of the new law. To him, the job is just as much about deterring offensive behavior and diffusing potentially explosive situations as it is about responding after things have gone too far.
“I didn’t sign on to become the party police,” he said. “I don’t want to ruin someone’s fun. I don’t take pleasure in that.”
I didn’t witness any enforcement of the new ordinance, but perhaps that’s no accident. While party-related calls over the Fourth of July weekend were up slightly from the same period a year earlier, the police say that residents have reported to them that conditions generally have improved somewhat in the weeks since the law took effect.
At one point during the ride-along, as we drove slowly down a residential street, a voice could be heard from inside a house saying, “There are the cops now.”
Sometimes, Peterson said, the mere presence of police is enough to keep the revelry in check.
Peterson had a few opportunities to demonstrate how he intervenes before conditions turn ugly.
In one instance, as we drove by a row of restaurants and bars, we pulled up behind two young women who were walking unsteadily in the middle of the road. After a few seconds, Peterson tapped on his horn to get them to move to the side.
One of the women shouted an obscenity, but as she turned and saw the police car, her facial expression changed from anger to “uh-oh.” Peterson gave her a warning and told her it was time to call it a night.
The young woman didn’t realize how lucky she was, Peterson told me, considering that another driver might have responded quite differently to her road blocking and her epithet. These are the types of situations that can quickly spiral out of control, he said.
A few minutes later, a restaurateur, who accused a pair of diners of running a scam to avoid paying a bill, flagged him down. Once again, Peterson’s manner was measured and pragmatic as he negotiated a resolution to the dispute.
Peterson assured me that the police don’t dole out penalties for excessive noise and offensive behavior without ample evidence. By way of example, he took me by one bar that has been the subject of repeated complaints — sometimes several per night — but which police haven’t found to be overly raucous. As we passed, we could hear no loud music emanating from inside the bar and the scene on the street was relatively calm.
A short time later, in the early-morning hours, an armed robbery and an attempted robbery occurred in Newport Beach. Police tried to track down the suspect — it was likely the same person in each case — but were unable to find him. It was a reminder, Peterson told me, of the importance of keeping the partying problems under control so police aren’t diverted from investigating serious crimes.
It all sounded reasonable, and I was left with the feeling that in Peterson’s experienced hands, the new law would be fairly and judiciously administered. I suppose I’ll always have qualms about how far our legal system should go in regulating personal behavior, but for now at least my fears about Newport’s new law are assuaged.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.