LA police move to stem violence in Venice Beach

Police Sgt. Marc Reina checks the weather on his iPhone every morning to forecast what lies ahead on the job at Venice Beach.

"Eighty-two and sunny - I know it's going to be a long day," he says.

Police are gearing up for especially long days even before summer's unofficial Memorial Day start, as the sun and heat that draw throngs of tourists to one of the city's top destinations also attracts an unsavory element and unusual violence - a shooting and stabbing in recent weeks.

Fearing crime could spiral, police have started cracking down on the unruliness that typifies the boardwalk - a 1.5-mile ribbon of asphalt that runs along the sand where the Ringling Brothers-meets-Woodstock ambiance can draw 150,000 people on a summer weekend.

Patrol reinforcements are being summoned from other divisions, more undercover operatives are being assigned to infiltrate crowds, and detectives are gathering intelligence via social media.

Dozens of people have been arrested for smoking pot and drinking in public, minor transgressions but ones that set the tone of public order on the beach.

"People come here from all over the world and we want them to come," said police Capt. Jon Peters. "But clearly, in my mind, this has become a public safety issue. We're taking an aggressive enforcement posture."

Policing the funky neighborhood along a scenic stretch of sand and surf has always been a thorny task.

The beach and boardwalk have unique sets of labyrinthine regulations, plus an entrenched counterculture that takes pride in pushing the boundaries of law and order, including hurling beer bottles and heckling the cops.

Nevertheless, the LAPD division in the area has a waiting list of officers wanting to wear shorts on the job, zoom around the sand on ATVS and pound the pavement on Segway-type vehicles. It takes about six weeks for a new officer to learn the beach beat.

Along with Berettas and batons, police are armed with tape measures to check peddlers' adherence to city property lines, and noise meters to detect decibel violators.

Since the economy soured, officers have gotten a lot busier dealing with everything from more thefts and transients to complaints about noise and vendor disputes. The increase has come even as overall crime in Venice has trended downward during the past two years, following a citywide pattern.

The summer melange of hucksters hawking two-headed turtles; aging hippies living in garishly painted RVs; activists opposing circumcision; and camera-toting visitors has extended to year-round, driven by peddlers desperate for a buck and families seeking a cheap outing.

"People don't have the money to go to other hotspots so they're coming here," said Reina, deftly weaving a police SUV through a sandy slalom course of bikini-clad sunbathers and sand-digging kids. "This is free entertainment."

Police are particularly concerned about two outlaw groups that have made Venice a regular hangout.

Nomadic bands of youths who used to pass through Venice have taken up residence in alleyways, living off panhandling, theft and resale of medical marijuana from boardwalk dispensaries. South Los Angeles gang members are also increasingly coming on weekends, bringing their rivalries and weapons.

Residents have noticed a wave of burglaries, car break-ins, and auto and bicycle thefts in the past year.

"You see these punks working the alleys, trying to find open gates, open windows," said Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Association, who lives blocks from the beach. "It's not your traditional homeless."

Police normally beef up Venice patrols in the summer, but last fall the 21 summer-duty positions were funded through the winter. Several gang members were arrested for home invasions, Peters said.

The boardwalk has also gotten more chaotic with new, first-come rules for vending spaces. The change has created an anything-goes flea market resulting in fisticuffs, threats and extortion among peddlers desperate for slots.

On top of that, vendors block emergency access zones, and unauthorized yard sales pop up that police can't shut down because no signs are posted with the rules.

"We can't do anything 'til the signs are up and they know it," Reina said, pointing to the sellers in illegal spaces. "The vending is out of control."

Things took a violent turn last month. A man was shot at the boardwalk basketball courts when rival gangs showed up at a "flash mob" gathering promoted by Twitter. The gunfire sparked pandemonium as people scattered for cover.

A week later, another man was stabbed at the beach drum circle, a regular jam session with hundreds of people rhythmically banging everything from bongos to buckets.

Some locals took the incidents as a harbinger of a rough summer to come, while others simply attributed it to a higher visitor turnout due to a spate of spring sunshine.

"They're isolated incidents but getting regular. It was the first real hot weekend," said Matt Dowd, a longtime boardwalk musician. "But the problems here stem back to a lack of attention to Venice's issues."

In the wake of the violence, officers have stepped up monitoring of Twitter, called in reinforcements one Sunday from the elite Metro division, and sought help from the major crimes task force.

On a recent Sunday after the stabbing, six undercover officers - up from the normal two or three - were sent to mingle in the drum circle, which can draw 600 to 800 cavorting people and has been a persistent headache through the years.

"The problem is we can't see what's going on in the crowd," Reina said. "We even had a sexual assault in there years ago."

Peters acknowledged arrests are only part of the solution.

He's bugging the city to clean up overflowing trash cans in a bid to instill a sense of order and is working to get access to residents' video surveillance cameras.

He's even looking at piping calming classical music into the so-called "pagodas" - shaded sitting areas where people congregate - as well as installing better lighting and cameras with speakers that would allow warnings to be issued remotely.

Still, highly visible uniformed officers - about 20 comprise a typical weekend detail - are the most powerful deterrent, the officers noted. "If I had my way, I'd have 200 officers down here," Reina said.

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