New venue for gang violence: cybercafes

Thursday 11:30 p.m.: Inside the corner window front at the local strip mall here, about 70 young men sit shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes glued to the cyber explosions of computer videogames. Earphones muffle the cacophony as each player stalks virtual terrorists.

The earphones also muffle the screech of tires outside, where a stream of pickups and low-rider cars, stereos pounding, deposit and retrieve the mostly male patrons.

"What's the fuss about? These places attract gangs," says an 18-year-old of Vietnamese heritage who calls himself, "Asian Playboy."

The "fuss" is about rising violence in so-called cybercafes where young people come to play videogames on the Internet. The Garden Grove City Council, in a move that legal analysts call a harbinger of similar steps in cities across America, last week put a hold on new permits for cybercafe establishments. The council also restricted their hours and set new rules to improve security at the cafes.

The moves come after a string of crimes, including a parking-lot stabbing death Dec. 30. In the preceding weeks, a 21-year-old was stabbed in the arm and four teens wielding baseball bats attacked two boys. Other gang fights have ensued.

Cybercafes have grown steadily in the past two years, soaring to 19 here in Garden Grove (pop. 151,000), with more permits being requested. The city has a diverse racial makeup with a high populations of ethnic Koreans and Vietnamese.

"These places were going up so fast that no one really had a handle on what was going on," says City Manager George Tindall. "The string of crimes made us realize we had better do something right away."

Some analysts call the efforts here the most sweeping yet to control existing "PC cafes" and set zoning for new ones. Like other youth trends before them, the cafes have enjoyed a window of unregulated growth.

"They are ... the latest magnet for the very same social and criminal problems that other arenas of entertainment and socializing have in the past, from soccer and football games to rock concerts and raves [drug parties]," says Robert Pugsley of Southwestern University School of Law. "California is now serving as a convenient object lesson for others."

After a contentious meeting last week, in which cafe owners complained that restrictions would hurt them financially, the City Council mandated that the cafes close at midnight. (Most now remain open until 2 a.m. or 4 a.m.) They are required to install police-approved security cameras, eliminate dark windows, and limit the number of computers to one per 20 square feet of floor space.

"I think security cameras and lighting changes and even guards are OK," says Steve Choi, owner of Net2Net, a popular cybercafe here. "But I don't think it's fair to limit my hours of operation or try to keep kids out."

But police officials and citizens welcome the new measure. "The place was getting out of hand. They take over the parking lot and cause too much noise," says Kenji Chun, a sushi chef at Dai Shogun Japanese restaurant next door. In November, 10 people assaulted a young customer outside Net2Net.

The City Council says it will revisit its new rules after 45 days.

"The city would have been absolutely derelict if it did not respond," says Professor Pugsley. "They would even be justified in seeking injunctions ... that would further restrict the comings and goings of identifiable gang members. That would be a much more extreme step than these new safety measures and enforced curfew."

Under the new rules, minors not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian can only remain at the "cafes" until 8 p.m., Monday through Thursdays. Fridays and Saturdays they can stay unaccompanied until 10 p.m. City officials are trying to convince owners and others who oppose the new rules that increased safety can only be a boon to business.

"As parents, no one wants to send their kids to a high-crime establishment," Bill Dalton, a City Council member who spent two decades on the local police force. "In the long run, if you don't have a safe environment, you won't be in business very long."

Officials here say they hope to learn whether the computer games themselves are a catalyst for violence. Unlike standard video arcades, where patrons play against the machine, game players here sign up in teams to play other teams in cyberspace. The other team can be across town or across the room.

"We want to look at the capacity for violence when a competing team loses in cyberspace and may or may not take its grievance to the real-life players," says Dalton. "We also want to look at the contests they have, the prizes, and the potential for gambling."

As city officials struggle with the issue, some see a tempest in a teapot.

"I don't think this place is unsafe now, and I didn't before," says a 17-year-old Vietnamese youth who refers to himself as "Shady." "I think you should go after gangs and violent behavior, not these cafes."

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