On Labor Day in 2007, several hundred people crowded the section of Pacific Beach near Reed Street. When police officers responded to reports of fighting in the crowd about 5 p.m., they were pelted with full beer cans, plastic bottles and size D batteries by the crowd. Seventeen arrests were made, offenders were forcibly removed and a call for 70 additional officers to handle the crowd was put out. Mission Boulevard was closed near Reed Street for part of that evening.
District 2 City Councilman Kevin Faulconer arrived at the scene at about 6 p.m. to find police in riot gear and a helicopter overhead. A day later, Faulconer held a press conference, during which he pronounced, “Never again should we have to have police in riot gear walking down our beaches or have to close off our main thoroughfare,” pointing out San Diego was one of the only counties in California that still allowed alcohol on the beaches.
The Labor Day incident motivated Faulconer and the City Council to pass a one-year trial alcohol ban by ordinance. A year later, after years of debate and a year-long taste of alcohol-free beaches, San Diego voters finally drove booze off the beach permanently with the passage of Proposition D.
When the measure passed, Scott Chipman, Pacific Beach resident and spokesman for the Yes on D campaign, said the alcohol-ban campaign owed its success to “city residents who saw the difference the temporary ban made.”
Six years later, Chipman said the ban has helped, but more remains to be done.
“Violent crime, DUI and drunkenness is still way too common in the business district,” he said, though he added, “Positive change is in the wind, and that wind increased dramatically with the change in alcohol policy at the beach.”
But not everyone was — or is — happy with the beach alcohol ban, nor does everyone believe it’s necessary, fair and impartially applied.
“I opposed it, and I still oppose it,” said Paul Falcone, a member of the Pacific Beach Planning Group speaking on his own behalf. “It’s such a small percentage of people who are causing a problem.”
Falcone said there are more than enough regulations already dealing with alcohol on the beach, adding, “We don’t need to ban it for everybody.”
The beach alcohol ban has negatively impacted beach communities, Falcone contends.
“Beach businesses have suffered dramatically, their revenues are down almost 50 percent since the ban,” he said, arguing the ban is also driving people away from the beaches — and away from beach businesses — especially on all-important summer holiday weekends.
“We went from averaging 2 million people on the Fourth of July holiday weekend to 400,000,” Falcone said.
“The bottom line is it has taken away a lot of our freedoms,” Falcone said, noting that 2008’s Prop. D, which made the alcohol ban permanent, only passed by a 51 to 49 percent margin.
“People in the beach areas voted 65 percent against the ban,” said Falcone. “It was other areas voting for it that caused it to pass.”
Falcone’s comments were echoed by Robert Rynearson of freepb.org, which opposed the ban back in 2008.
“The fact is, we have no beach ban. We just have a permitting system that’s being administered unfairly,” Rynearson said. “They’re depriving people of their rights.”
Though some argued that an alcohol-free policy was an overreaction to an isolated incident, Chipman said he felt the ban was an idea whose time had come.
“For over a decade, local residents had been expressing concern about binge drinking, public drunkenness, beer bongs and alcohol luges, and lewd behavior and drunken pre-riotous conditions that had become commonplace in Pacific and Mission Beach,” he said.
Chipman contends, however, that the Labor Day riot was the catalyst for much-needed change.
“Prior to the riot, there wasn’t the political will to address the issue,” he said, adding drinking at the beach in San Diego had become an “institution.”
Retired San Diego lifeguard John Greenhalgh remembers the 2009 Labor Day fracas well. He recalls predicting it.
“I had said prior to that that a riot was going to have to occur before they got alcohol removed from the beach. That was going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Greenhalgh, who credited Faulconer for taking decisive action in proposing what was, at that time, an unpopular beach alcohol ban, which the lifeguard characterized as “a very risky move” politically.
Greenhalgh said he worked with the political campaign to get alcohol banned at the beach.
“I felt it was important. I understand that people thought it was a right, but I thought it was a privilege,” he said.
The retired lifeguard said there’s been a real “sea change” in the way the beachfront looks and feels, now that the alcohol ban is firmly in place.
“My wife and I were walking on the boardwalk the other day and I was just amazed at how much cleaner it was, no urine stench, and how much safer it felt,” he said. “Overall, there’s a lot less trash on the beach. There are less people stumbling around intoxicated. It’s almost like the residents were under siege. It’s just a better situation now.”
The beach alcohol ban has been good for lifeguards, allowing them to provide more focus on prevention and water safety, said San Diego lifeguard Lt. Nick Lerma.
“Prior to the alcohol ban, lifeguards were spending an inordinate amount of time with alcohol-related or [alcohol]-induced issues, including fights and disorderly conduct,” Lerma said. “There were many medical issues related to extreme intoxication, including unconscious or disoriented individuals who had overimbibed. These issues were very distracting for lifeguards and took time away from other beach management priorities.”
Lerma said one of the most significant issues for lifeguards was managing water safety when intoxicated individuals would head to the water.
“Intoxicated individuals tend to ignore the direction of lifeguards attempting to warn them out of rip-current areas and are less able to overcome challenging physical stressors,” he said. “Intoxicated individuals do not always exhibit the survival ability necessary for a lifeguard to affect a rescue.”
Lerma said the majority of beachgoers continue to respect the alcohol ban.
“With the majority of people abiding by the alcohol ban, it has not been overly taxing for lifeguards to enforce,” he said.
Lerma said the ban has made a qualitative difference in the beach experience.
“There is no question that the beach has much less drama than it did prior to the ban,” he said. “The Pacific Beach area would be littered with trash daily prior to the ban. The area is now a much more family-oriented experience that all can enjoy.”
SDPD Northern Division Capt. Brian Ahearn said the ban has made law enforcement’s job easier as well as changing the social climate along the coast.
“It’s a lot less violent. We’re not responding to the same degree of violent crimes, especially the assault-type of cases, sexual assaults,” he said. “There’s been a dramatic reduction. With less alcohol consumption on the sand, it’s given us the ability to respond to other types of calls that took us longer to get to in the past.”
Ahearn said families and people of all ages, many of whom were put off before by disruptive behavior from excessive alcohol consumption, are returning to the beachfront.
“They know it’s going to be an enjoyable environment and they’re not going to have to deal with arrogant or inebriated people who are disruptive. It’s a big change … [The police have] moved on, the community’s moved on. It’s in the rear-view mirror.”