Police teams don’t coast in beach duties

May 30, 1994 No Comments

TERRY RODGERS. The San Diego Union – Tribune. San Diego, Calif.: May 30, 1994. pg. B.1

When the usual mile-thick overcast finally retreats from the Southern California coastline, thousands of otherwise normal people will feel the urge to shed clothing, hop into topless cars and head for the beach.

Wind will blow from Borrego, pushing the swells higher, and the heat will ignite dormant hormones, turning previously passive young people into boardwalk showoffs and streetwise rebels.

Traffic gridlock will set in along miles of hot urban asphalt, and dueling boomboxes will pit doo-wop against gangsta rap.

No need to panic. Do not adjust your dial.

It’s merely the start of summer.

To maintain the peace amid this seasonal influx of youthful party animals and great white beer-bellies from inland provinces, communities along San Diego County’s 76 miles of coastline activate their beach enforcement teams.

Beach-team officers in the city of San Diego ruefully refer to their highly prized duty as “the 100-Day Marathon” because their busy season generally runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Sure, there’s a chance to pause amid “floss” swimsuits and occasional nude sunbathers from Europe, but beach-team duty is rarely tame, veterans insist.

“It was exhausting, but it was fun,” said Officer Brett Burkett, recalling his rookie year last summer on the San Diego Police Department beach team.

Among the highlights: Burkett was twice accidentally sprayed with eye-stinging Mace by fellow officers while trying to break up wild parties.

“We get into a lot more physical contact with people than any other unit,” said Burkett, 28, who patrols the Mission Beach boardwalk on a rusted bicycle. “Sometimes people don’t like us here because we’re the ones taking away the fun.”

At least his chances of getting stung again with Mace again are pretty slim; the beach team has switched to a pepper-based spray.

“We’re like the Flying Tigers, you know, the pilots who volunteered to fight the Japanese in the Pacific long before the rest of the U.S. forces got there in World War II,” said Jim Gularte, a veteran beach-team officer with the Oceanside Police Department.

“The few of us that there are make the difference between (the beach) being sane or insane,” he said. “We’re not afraid to take people to jail.”

Gularte, a policeman for 25 years, has the alert and vigilant demeanor of an espresso-drinking Doberman as he patrols his oceanfront neighborhood. Some of the locals admire his zeal.

During a recent ride-along, one local merchant showed his appreciation by dashing out to meet the officer’s jeep and wiping the windshield. The typical uniform for beach-team officers consists of shorts with a preppy golf shirt, some with an inked facsimile of a police badge over the pocket.

Out-of-town police officers vacationing here consider the garb such a novelty that they often beg to pose for pictures with their beach-team brethren.

Beach-team veterans say the job, while at times rigorous, is more fulfilling than routine patrol duty, which involves driving around in a patrol car and chasing endless radio calls.

“We don’t pick just any officer,” said San Diego police Sgt. Ralph Garcia, who drafts each summer’s beach team with the care of an NBA coach.

“They gotta have that knack to be able to talk to people and at the same time be aggressive,” Garcia explained. “We look for the officer who can handle the crowds . . . who doesn’t agitate the situation.”

The ideal beach-team cop is a chameleon who in one moment can engage in easy banter with a local merchant and in the next command respect while patting down armed gang-bangers.

“You have to be everything because everybody comes to the beach,” Garcia said.

Once, astonished officers halted a madcap motorist who was driving his car along the 12-foot-wide Mission Beach boardwalk.

“You guys really have narrow streets here,” the tipsy tourist remarked, before being taken to County Jail.

On another occasion, beach-team officers scurried to a potential hostage situation at a beach-front business where a gunman was reportedly holed up.

At the climactic moment, just as officers began their assault on the building, a woman approached a reserve police sergeant, who was stationed behind a telephone pole with his shotgun pointed at the store.

Tapping the nervous cop on the shoulder, the lady blithely asked: “Can you give me directions to Sea World?”

Even though the convention and visitors bureau would prefer that officers be gentle with tourists, leniency is not standard procedure for the beach team.

“We don’t give breaks to tourists or anyone,” said Sgt. Tony “Chewy” Johnson, whose nickname derives from his alleged resemblance to Chewbacca, the furry “Star Wars” character.

“We have to be strict and consistent or we’ll lose (control),” Johnson said. “Alcohol is our biggest enemy.”

Unruliness among beach crowds has declined dramatically since the San Diego City Council enacted the boardwalk booze ban in June 1991, he said.

Still, the crowds can be massive.

As many as 100,000 visitors will sardine themselves along 2 1/2 miles of sandy shoreline from the South Mission Beach jetty to Pacific Beach. Over a holiday weekend such as Memorial Day, San Diego’s beach team typically conducts 50 physical arrests and issues 150 citations ranging from public drunkenness to possession of reptiles beyond the legal length limit.

Beach-goers, beware: Anywhere within sniffing distance of the Pacific Ocean is heavily regulated, and woe to those who take the rules with a grain of sand. In Oceanside, the fine for skateboarding on The Strand, the beach-front roadway, is $135. Ditto for getting a citation for a loud car stereo. The ticket for having a dog on the beach costs $110.

Consumption of alcohol is prohibited anywhere along the boardwalks fronting Mission Beach and Pacific Beach. However, just a few feet west of the walkways, adults can sip canned beer or any beverage from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. as long as it’s not in a glass container.

While skateboarding is allowed on the San Diego boardwalks, all “thrashers” must be gone by 10 p.m.

Police also surprise the occasional Alice Cooper (pop star circa 1970s) copycats who like to attract attention by walking along the boardwalk with a slithering, 6-foot boa around their neck.

Snakes longer than 3 feet are illegal, either as necklaces or in any noncaptive state, at Mission Bay Park, which encompasses the boardwalk.

“We’re here to make sure people have fun,” said Sgt. Garcia. “We keep that fun honest.”

The shoreline cop squads are as individual as the communities they serve.

In Oceanside, which maintains a four-officer beach team all year, the city supplements the officers by hiring five local schoolteachers to write parking and municipal code citations.

Coronado police adjust to the change in season by pulling two officers out of their patrol cars and placing them on bicycles.

Solana Beach and Del Mar, which contract for police services with the county Sheriff’s Department, each pay for an extra deputy to help ensure a mellow summer.

Deputy Joe Spina, who patrols Solana Beach, said it can get interesting when the beach-party-and-bonfire scene heats up.

While the weather usually dictates whether the beach crowd will be deep-fried frenetic or marine-layer laconic, the tide is a key factor in Solana Beach, where the beaches are framed by steep, impenetrable bluffs.

“If the tide is up, the beach is so small that it limits the size of the crowds,” he said.

High tide also presents this beach team its greatest challenge as they patrol the slender, bluff-confined beaches in their four-wheel- drive vehicles.

“If you go one way, it can actually close off behind you, and you can’t get out,” said Spina. “Each year it’s a waiting game to see (which deputy) will get stuck.”

[Illustration]
1 PIC; Caption: Union-Tribune / JOHN NELSON

Credit: Staff Writer

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