Bakersfield stays tough on Internet cafes

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) Bakersfield officials want those so-called Internet sweepstakes cafes to leave town, and they're staying tough on the operations. A city council committee heard that three shut down in about the last month, though a new one opened up. That leaves 13 now in the city.

"In the eyes of the city and the eyes of law enforcement, these things are illegal gambling operations," Ward 7 councilman Russell Johnson said Thursday. He thinks the city's efforts are working.

The city council Safe Neighborhoods and Community Relations committee has been keeping an eye on the cafes, saying they hear complaints from nearby businesses. The one caf newly opened in October is on Ming Avenue, police reported.

To put pressure on the cafes, the city's drafted letters saying they believe the games are illegal gambling, and sent these to property-owners and caf operators. The committee heard a caf on Chester Avenue, one on Union, and another on Wilson Road have now closed down.

The committee heard complaints at their July meeting from a dentist whose office is next to the one on Wilson. Johnson says where the cafes have closed, they're now they're getting positive feedback from worried business-owners

Police reported they are also keeping an eye on those still operating. Bakersfield Police officers and the Joint Vice Task Force made a number of arrests at three cafes. Those included arrests for robbery, drugs and weapons violations.

But, police also report none of the businesses had "excessive" calls for service or complaints during October. "Which is good, because people are starting to realize -- we're watching you, we're going to go after you, if you guys are being a nuisance," Johnson says.

Nearby businesses complain the cafes draw other types of crime. "The loitering, the prostitution, the drug-dealing," Johnson ticks off. "And it's driving other businesses out of the city of Bakersfield."

In addition to contacting caf owners and keeping an eye on them, the city council members hope to get legal clarification that will help boot out the cafes. On Thursday, City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said her office still wants to work with State Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield. Gennaro said he's interested in carrying a bill at the next session that would make these types of operations clearly illegal.

Operators of Internet cafes have told Eyewitness News the computer games are simply sweepstakes, like something a shopper might get at a supermarket.

But, the Kern County District Attorney's office brought civil action against a number of cafes last year, and a judge ordered nine to stop their sweepstakes activities. However some of them have challenged the injunction, and the appeal is still underway.

Until there's a court ruling, Johnson says that leaves the city stuck in legal limbo. But he's convinced in that meantime, the city's efforts are succeeding and need to be continued.

"We still need to be diligent at the City to try to make sure that (the cafes) know we're watching them." Johnson said. "These Internet cafes, they're driving out legitimate businesses, and we need to stop that."