While lewd conduct is alive and well on our local beaches, violent crime is, for the most part, nonexistent. The Redondo Beach Police Department reports only 14 arrests on the beach last summer — that is, from May through September — and the Santa Monica Police Department arrested just 204 people along a 3.2-mile stretch of coastline, mostly for auto break-ins and drunkenness. Neither department reported any homicides at the water‘s edge, and between them, Santa Monica reported the sole rape. The Los Angeles Police Department says it does not compile statistics for L.A.’s beaches, but that local strand vendors have repeatedly commented on an increasingly safer environment. “Eight years ago I was making decent money, and after work you wouldn‘t feel safe with your money,” says Dillinger Lee Heermann, who plays musical glasses in Venice. “Now you’re out at 3 in the morning and it‘s clean.”
Not long ago, cops say, gangs branched out into the more pleasant beach territories, terrorizing locals and tourists alike. While gangs and the violence they wrought have been calmed, other crimes, of a nonviolent nature, such as public drinking, nudity and sex on the sand still persist. This may not be a result of a lack of police power, but more due to a restructured priority system, where victimless crimes are not considered serious enough to declare a war on. Even the “War on Drugs” has been toned down in California, with officers concentrating on arresting dealers instead of minor users, who are given tickets for possessing less than 1 ounce of marijuana.
Officer Dave Christian of the Redondo Beach Police Department has been pounding the sand of the city’s shores for 11 years, and in his time he‘s learned to handle nearly every situation presented — violence, drugs and vandals. However, for some dilemmas experience offers no guidance. Between the sand dunes and rock formations, Christian knows of several spots hidden from the beaten path where spontaneous interluders like to get it on. “What are you supposed to say,” asks Christian. “’Get a room‘? ’Go home‘? Our biggest concern is to make sure they are there willingly. It is illegal, and if they’re offending others, I‘ll use a stronger tone. They’re usually very embarrassed and not belligerent.”
For most victimless offenses, Christian uses diplomacy rather than the paddy wagon. If a guy has an open bottle of booze, he makes him dump it. If that person is too trashed to control himself, Christian will stick him in lockup for the night. If a girl is naked, he will tell her to cover up. After all, this is Southern California, where conduct must be exceptional to be lewd — especially on the beach, where discretion is an anomaly and crimes like these rarely draw the attention they would in other parts of society. For the most part, when actions get out of hand, the perpetrator tends to be inebriated, especially in places like Redondo Beach and Venice, where bars dot the coast.
Chris Cox, a bartender at the Sidewalk Cafe on the Venice Boardwalk, remembers a recent episode where a drunken patron challenged his manhood. A guy around 50 with a Rod Stewart haircut and a Hawaiian shirt buttoned down to just above his beer belly walked in with his young girlfriend, who soon after escorted him to the bathroom. When they came back, her teeth were covered in pink lipstick, and they began groping in a way that offended the crowd. Cox told them to leave. The man responded by saying he worked for J. Edgar Hoover, and bet Cox $50 he couldn‘t throw him out. Cox took the bet, but the girlfriend had a cooler head and led the secret agent away.
With illicit activity of a more sober nature, the circumstances can be caused by cultural misunderstanding, or by ignorance of a certain area’s laws. In these instances, police officers are better off politely informing the person of the law, rather than coming down hard, explains Christian. For example, public nudity, while legal at many beaches throughout the world, including several in this country, is illegal at most Southern California beaches, including Redondo Beach. “I‘ve had to advise a couple of women that they can’t have their tops off. I‘ve had several flight attendants from Europe [do it]. To them, it’s not a problem,” says Christian.
However, crimes of a more perverse nature –which, on the surface, might not seem dangerous — may require police to be more aggressive, for fear the situation might escalate. Louis Offer, 37, who dresses as a modern version of Lucifer and takes pictures with tourists for donations in Venice, has witnessed several examples of this. “I‘ve seen people get arrested for masturbating on the beach,” he says. “They’ll sit next to a pretty girl down on the beach and start whacking off.”
Even though minor nuisances like these have shown their staying power — they are the time-tested crimes of circumstance and season — police officers are thankful for the recent gentility found on their patrol. This change was a relief to Christian‘s partner Ron Krajcik, a longtime veteran who just came back to the beach patrol two years ago. “Back 25 years ago, this place was wild and crazy,” said Krajcik. “I [once] got into five fights in one night. It was a pleasant surprise, coming back.”
The only recent incident that sticks out in the minds of Christian and Krajcik was not dangerous, just surreal. The Redondo Beach P.D. was the unlucky department that had to arrest a man for stealing a slice of pizza from a little kid.
It was the guy’s third strike.