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Plaza cracks down on loitering youths

By Sarah Krupp
CONTRA COSTA TIMES

ANTIOCH - Mar. 06, 2005 - Police lights whirled red and blue, and teens sidled through parking lots in groups as large as 30 while dark-suited security guards and officers ordered them to move on.

At first glance, the Deer Valley Plaza shopping center on this Friday night in February seemed chaotic. In fact, it was a particularly uneventful night, with no reported fights, drug deals or other major problems. The police were just giving out traffic citations. It's not always that tame. Shoppers, merchants, city leaders have started to crack down on the teen scene.

The shopping center in the heart of southeast Antioch, with the city's only first-run movie theater and a bevy of fast food restaurants, attracts scores of teens on weekend nights. Before police enforcement increased about a month ago, students from nearby Deer Valley High would also stream into the center after school.

Complaints from residents that the loitering teens are intimidating and disrespectful -- blocking traffic and entrances, loudly using profanities and fighting -- spurred the city and the center's private security patrol to deal more aggressively with troublemakers. A disruptive teen will be banned from the center and arrested for returning under the new policy.

"I have been there. They have blocked my entrance. The profanities that spill out -- it's extraordinary," said Mayor Donald Freitas, who convened a committee to address the center's problems. "People are frightened. If you are walking out of the cinema and there's 30 to 40 kids around your car, that's unnerving."

Merchants who were willing to discuss the issue tended to agree. "Not all of them are rude, but you get patches here and there that are off the hook," said Don Jones, a Prince's Seafood Cafe employee.

Police Chief Mark Moczulski said serious crime at the shopping center is rare. The number of thefts, assaults and other major crimes have dropped from 60 in 2002 to 30 in 2004, according to police data.

A group of residents who spearheaded the drive to increase police presence at the center said statistics don't dispel their fears. "There is an element there that's not conducive to families," said Vicki McKenna. "I don't like the crowd there." McKenna and others said that the teen situation has improved since police stepped up enforcement about a month ago.

San Francisco State University social psychology professor James Newton said an actual threat doesn't need to be made to instill fear. "Those kids may not intend to mount an assault on shoppers, but if they look intimidating and look different ... (it) can make people really feel that this is a dangerous thing just to walk through here," he said.

The teens themselves have varying opinions on the situation. Some say it's not dangerous and that adults have nothing to worry about. Others, including a group of skaters, contend that they need to protect themselves by carrying knives. One said he was jumped by a group of other teens in front of the theater.

Dozens of others who go to the center after school and on Friday nights accused police and shoppers of discrimination. The majority of teens who hang out there are black.

Freitas said that the crackdown has nothing to do with race. Roger Henry, president of the East County chapter of the NAACP, agrees that the core issue is behavior, not race.

Teens showered his wife with profanities and insults when she tried to make her way through a crowd while going to the movie theater on a weekend night more than a year ago. "We in the black community have to assume some responsibility for the conduct of our children," he said. He emphasized, though, that the problems shouldn't be exaggerated.

"I want everyone to keep this in perspective," Henry said. "The vast majority (of teens) are just hanging out, trying to be seen by their friends, trying to see their friends, doing what teenagers have done since the beginning of time."

Fifteen-year-old Anthony Smith, who prefers to be called Lil' Scooby, said the white shoppers are afraid of African-American teens. "A lot of white people are racist, and they just don't know they are racist. They are scared of black people," he said.

Anthony and his friends had walked over to the shopping center after a basketball game at Deer Valley High in search of a party.

They saw friends and crossed the lot over to Albertsons to talk with them. Someone in the group started to tease another kid whose pants weren't sagging: "Why you conduct yourself like that? Why do you wear little-ass pants like that? A police officer interjected: "If you are not buying anything you need to leave." They didn't move right away. The officer added: "Leave now."

They started walking toward Regal Cinemas, where teens clogged the entrance. Another teen cruising by on a low-rider bicycle stopped talking on his cell phone long enough to acknowledge Anthony and his friends with a "What's up?"

Once they got the address of the party, Anthony and his friends left but they were back a half-hour later. Police had broken up the party.

 

 

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